“Ding Dong!” A retrospective of ‘House’ at 30 by Rosie Gibbs

houseretro1“Ding Dong!” A retrospective of ‘House’ at 30 by Rosie Gibbs

I have fairly vivid memories, as a small child in the mid-eighties, of entering the then-commonplace local video rental shop (the Clevedon branch of Ritz video I believe was mine!) and, whilst choosing a She-Ra compilation or the latest Disney offering to rent, experiencing the unsettling yet hard-to-resist urge to take a sidelong glance at the VHS covers on display in the Horror section. You know it’s a bad idea as it’s very likely the plethora of terrors watching you from those particular shelves are going to take another starring role probably that very night in your dreams, doing whatever your imagination sees fit to muster up to terrify you – yet still, you sneak a peek…and for me, the one that always stuck in my mind was Steve Miner’s 1986 offering, ‘House’ (produced by the ‘Friday the 13th’ franchise’s Sean S. Cunningham).

Funnily enough, the cover art work and promotional photographs are rather understated for the film – there’s no monstrous or ghostly form staring back at you, reaching towards you or grasping threateningly onto some hapless human; merely a fairly subtle image of a worm-eaten detached hand, sideways-on, gently pressing a doorbell button. But for some reason, this image always frightened me particularly as a youngster – maybe because at that kind of age your home is where you feel most secure and happy, and you have little experience of the world outside. Armchair psychoanalysis aside, it always bothered me more than any other image in the ’18’ section that I could quickly peer at whilst following my family past it (although I do remember the ‘Fright Night’ one really giving me the willies too).

houseretro2Anyhow, as I grew older I made a mental note to one day watch the bugger just to see if it really was as terrifying as I imagined it might be. It turns out it wasn’t…but in it I discovered a fantastic black comedy which fast became one of my all-time favourite scaries. Happily, it has in the years since its release acquired a richly-deserved firm cult status, and last month we reached the thirtieth anniversary of its release in US cinemas. What follows is a short love letter to ‘House’ and why I believe it’s such an excellent, sadly sometimes-overlooked horror film which is vital to the genre and to the appreciation and study of it.

‘House’ follows the story of Roger Cobb (played by William Katt in an understated, engaging performance), a well-known novelist and veteran of the Vietnam War, and his grapplings with both the varied manifestations lurking in his childhood home and the deteriorating state of his currently very troubled mind. Cobb finds himself returning there after learning of his aunt’s death (by apparent suicide) to spend some time alone to work on his new book – this one, to his fans’ chagrin, a memoir of his war experiences. He has become estranged from his wife Sandy (Kay Lenz), and we also find that, tragically and inexplicably, their only son disappeared some time ago, from the outdoor pool of the House itself. Whilst reluctantly entering into an acquaintance with neighbour and fan Harold, Roger experiences a series of run-ins with horrific monsters, possessed wall ornaments and even sentient gardening tools as he submits fully to the effects of his psychological trauma harking back to his war memories. He must learn to battle these demons of both types head-on if he wishes to find his son Jimmy and be reconciled with Sandy.

houseretro3For me, that’s the main beauty of ‘House’ – the fact that it can be taken two ways. Firstly, it can be enjoyed with gusto on a superficial level as a joyful 80’s horror filled with some impressive, suitably unsubtle scares, bat-shit crazy creature designs typical of the era and a hefty slice of good-natured humour – the ‘closet monster’ is pretty special and still gives a good convincing fright today, and the chimney-flue kids are also creepily unforgettable! The hag-like monstrosity Cobb’s ex jump-scares into (lovingly since dubbed ‘the Sandywitch’) delivers laughs aplenty, especially during Roger’s frantic attempts to hide her dismembered body parts from sexy neighbour Tanya. And forgive me, but the oh-so-quiet, understated horror which is emerging in the 2010’s (i.e. ‘The Babadook’, ‘It Follows’ etc.) is all well and good, however sometimes it’s just a joy for any fan of the genre to occasionally revel in these kind of off-the-chart gruesome monsters and general thrill-gratifying silliness; ‘It Follows’ can cleverly make someone walking appear unsettling, but ‘House’ just for starters includes the image of a giant winged skeleton firing a shotgun – you just can’t argue with a film like that in my opinion!

Yet, on the flipside, ‘House’ does have a serious undertone which offers an alternative interpretation, and this is what sets it apart from many other 80’s horrors with a ‘critters in the house’ or ‘home invasion’ theme. It is of course abundantly clear that Roger is experiencing a form a Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder brought on by the horrific events he witnessed serving in Vietnam, particularly with regard to the guilt he feels at having deserted his comrade Ben and left him at the mercy of the enemy deep within the jungle. The House only exacerbates this, and we are free to assume that Jimmy didn’t literally disappear – Roger has simply become so distanced from his wife and son as a result of his mental health problems that they both feel lost to him. ‘House’ brilliantly marries these two interpretations and the viewer can choose to take the film lightly or as something deeper and more evocative.

houseretro4Aside from this main reason I believe the film to be a corker, it also boasts several other general plus points such an excellent, typically heavy-on-the-cheese 80’s horror incidental music, and notably uses the sassy Betty Everett track ‘You’re No Good’ (one of my favourite songs included in any film ever). Add to this the menacing performance from Richard Moll as Big Ben and the ever-likable George Wendt (Norm from ‘Cheers’) as Harold, you have an all-round superb horror flick sewn up tightly by Ethan Wiley’s imaginative screenplay. It’s great to see that it’s appreciated in a cult following capacity but I certainly think it deserves to be seen by a broader audience and loved more widely as the smart, chilling, knowingly bonkers horror-comedy it is. I’ve also found through ‘House’ that it’s a good idea to catch up with those old VHS covers that shook you up as a little’un – in them you may discover true horror greatness!

‘I’m gonna say it again – you’re no good, you’re no good, you’re no good, baby, you’re no good..!’

The Long and Bloody Weekend (2015) Short Film Review

‘The Long and Bloody Weekend’ (2015) Short Film Review

Director / Writer: BC Furtney

Starring: Jason Winn ‘JB Destiny’ Bareford, Jennifer Blaze, Michael Kolence

Runtime: 14 mins

Production Co.: Weekend Film

‘He thinks he’s hunting a monster…she thinks he’s insane…one of them is right.’

‘The Long and Bloody Weekend’, on limited release in the US last month, tells the story of a cabin-dwelling loner known only as ‘Del’ (Bareford), who appears from the get-go to be frantically nervy about some kind of presence lurking in the surrounding Texan woods. Polishing, cradling, and at times firing his shotgun, and shouting in frustration at the countryside around his house, we are unsure what manner of creature may or may not be haunting him (and indeed possibly feeding on others), but soon local woman Mary is embroiled into his paranoid behaviour and a frantic struggle ensues…

This short was written, directed and co-produced by BC Furtney, whose other work I’m not familiar with (namely last year’s ‘Werewolf Rising’, which he also directed). Having not seen his feature-length offering I was unsure of what to expect here, but sadly on viewing I was ultimately underwhelmed. Starting with the positives, the piece is capably acted, and the camera work delivers some imaginative angles which accentuate Del’s paranoia and obsession with hunting down the vicious creature before it decides to strike again. The prosthetic effects and costume work are also good considering this is a low budget short and the creature seems to be giving an affectionate nod to the familiar inhabitant of the Black Lagoon.

However, the production does suffer firstly from some sound mix issues – the dialogue in the bar scene was hard to hear in particular. Also, the use of a heart beat sound effect isn’t the most original way to heighten tension, even if it achieves that goal. Disappointingly I found there was an aura of leeriness too in it in terms of the female character and how she was filmed – I really fail to understand why we had to see her in bra and knickers for the main part of her screen time, unless we’re to believe the creature itself has stipulated its meals must only be underwear-clad before it can devour them?

Yes, female nudity or semi-nudity is a long-standing trope of the horror genre but I believe we’re past the point now where it can still get away with cropping up gratuitously even for the sake of irony or ‘proud’ tradition. At least she’s a bit feisty and has a good crack at escaping I guess…

Overall, I just feel ‘The Long and Bloody Weekend’ didn’t offer anything original in terms of concept and the characters felt very flat and cardboard cut-out – admittedly it’s harder to develop characters and flesh out absorbing dialogue in a short than it is in a feature-length offering but it is possible (e.g. the weary yet determined Lily in ‘A Stranger Kind’). On the whole I found it to be an offering that’s not terrible but unfortunately just left me pretty cold personally.

4/10

White God aka Feher Isten (2014) DVD Review

wg1White God aka ‘Feher Isten’ (2014)

UK DVD Release Date: 3rd August 2015

Director: Kornel Mondruczo

Producer: Viktoria Petranyi

Starring: Zsofia Psotto, Sandor Zsoter, Lilli Horvath, Luke / Body as “Hagen”

Runtime: 117 minutes

UK Certificate: 15

Released through Metrodome Distribution

“Everything terrible is something that needs our love.”

So the first frame of ‘White God’ tells us, effectively setting the theme of the piece – the creatures we find under our stewardship look to us for physical and emotional sustenance in return for whatever assistance or companionship they provide, and this film from ‘Delta’ and ‘Tender Son’ director Kornel Mondruczo ponders how badly the worm may possibly turn should we not ‘treat as we would be treated’.

This Hungarian-Swedish-German co-production centres around 13 year old Lili (Psotto) and her beloved dog Hagen, a faithful Lab / Shar Pei cross breed who unfortunately finds himself living in a time when Hungary has begun imposing a new dog ownership law that outlaws the keeping of mixed breed mutts, levying a heavy fine on anyone found housing one. Lili’s father Daniel is dead against having Hagen in his apartment, which Lili is reluctantly staying in whilst her mother is away on business. The two clash over the matter and despite Lili’s obvious devotion to her canine pal, Daniel eventually sets Hagen loose on a nearby motorway.

wg2Distraught, Lili searches tirelessly for him, little knowing that he is to be passed fleetingly through a handful of new masters, all planning to use him for their own ends – and so begins the animal’s transformation from softie to savage, a process which the viewer can only hope will be reversed by the eventual return to his young mistress.

‘White God’ in many ways follows the themes of other animal-centred horror classics such as ‘The Birds’ and ‘Cujo’ – the menace of the ever-increasing ‘pack’ of stray dogs Hagen befriends and the metamorphosis of Hagen over time will put viewers in mind of both, but the film is not as gore-heavy as it could easily have let itself be and although tense moments are there, the overall feel is understated rather than overblown.

The acting is of a good quality too, with newcomer Zsofia Psotto giving a passive yet powerful performance in the lead role, and indeed the canine interaction is something to behold. Mondruczo’s action shots of all the (many!) dogs are brilliantly done, most notably when the pack escapes the animal shelter and brings chaos upon the city, and kudos must be given to the animal handlers involved as the action involving the four-legged actors is convincingly choreographed and presented.

Whilst Psotto engages the viewer through Lili’s struggles with teen isolation, there are moments of real tension and some outrage at Hagen’s situation as he is physically modified, tormented and ultimately brutalised within the distinctly ugly underworld of illegal dog-fighting – incidentally, as one might imagine, this one is a tough watch for any dog lovers out there (although there is nothing too graphic shown)!

wg3On the other hand, it’s also maybe not one for any canine-phobic viewers – Hagen and his comrades as one force are rather unsettling and there is some bloody comeuppance for the humans who have abused them. However, if you’re someone to whom neither of the above apply then you should find ‘White God’ a worthy watch – visually it’s very enjoyable (the final frame is a beauty) and the acting and direction showcase a high level of talent, with hopefully more of the same to come from both, overall serving up an intriguing and memorable film for the horror enthusiast and general film buff alike.

7/10

Soldiers of The Damned (2015) Review

sotd1Soldiers of the Damned (2015)

UK Release Date: 17th August 2015 from Safecracker Films

Director / Producer: Mark Nuttall

Writer: Nigel Horne

Starring: Gil Darnell, Miriam Cooke, Lucas Hansen, Mark Fountain

Runtime: 99 mins

UK Certificate: 18

‘This forest is possessed.’

It’s possessed, you know. That’s what we keep getting reminded of at regular intervals in the dialogue of this World War II-set directorial début from Mark Nuttall (assisted in production by various members of the cast). We get told it quite a bit in fact, in case we haven’t yet at any point got a clue from the unexplained distant whispers, apparitions and generally supernatural offings that occur as we go along.

sotd2Major Kurt Fleisher (Darnell) and a handful of his soldiers stationed in Romania find themselves entrusted with a mission to escort a professor (Cooke) to a secret location within a forest which is said to hold an artefact believed to have significant occult powers – and the signature of none other than Heinrich Himmler suggests that they successfully assist the professor in finding it or else they will be deep in brown town. Along the way, the already reluctant troupe discover the rumours surrounding the forest (possessed, remember!) are definitely more than mere fiction and a struggle to both uncover the artefact and stop its ultimate use in the wrong hands ensues.

The opening credits start off promisingly, a stripped-down, rat-a-tatting showcase of the different weapons featured next to the contributing names looks edgy and fresh, and whilst the ‘get-you-up to speed’ mini-history lesson at the beginning doesn’t teach anyone who studied History further than Year Nine anything revelatory, it makes sense to set the tone and historical point of the piece. The rather generic, catch-all title of the film had me thinking I was in for re-animated soldiers with a grudge fare, as has become a staple of horror in recent times off the back of the relative success of ‘Outpost’, ‘Dead Snow’ et al, but this takes a slightly different route and opts to focus more on the angle of soldiers dealing with their deeds and personal demise. The first few scenes are well-paced and rather dignified in tone, almost shot in a style of dramatised segments you may find in a History Channel documentary on the subject (which is not a bad thing by any means), but after the first fifteen minutes or so the film just lost any grip it might have had on me. The acting is uninspired, the plot was rather flat and a little confusing, and overall the whole thing felt half an hour too long even at only 99 minutes.

sotd3The dialogue and scene pacing in general tries to get a hook on the feelings of the individual soldiers and give them their own individuality but it’s all done in such a hackneyed, ‘stick-this-bit-wherever-you-can’ fashion that the viewer flatly fails to feel any sympathy with or interest in the characters – there is no end of clichéd talisman-kissing and picture-stroking amidst the far-too modern dialogue, and unfortunately the acting from most of the cast is just not believable enough to carry it through besides. There’s plenty of set pieces involving two of the soldiers discussing their fears concerning what happens to a soldier in the afterlife that feels rather shoehorned-in although at times is dark & creepy. There’s also a confusing use of accents going on as well – the English ones again sound too modern in some cases or overly-posh in others. Incidentally, using English accents for non-English characters is fine in my opinion, and in many ways can be the less cringe-worthy option than having everyone “Ja Vol”-ing etc., but this should at least be consistent – the one SS guard we meet actually DOES use a German accent (to illustrate his evilness to the subconscious of the British audience?!).

But hey, you don’t necessarily watch a horror film for authentic accents, massively over-wrought character development and believable exchanges regarding redemption and immortality, right? Right – you watch it for a good scare and big stonking bursts of plasma, right? And people being sick quite a lot apparently, if this film is anything to go by. Well, you get the blood, gross-out injuries and gunfire in respectable amounts, and if you aren’t yet tired of creepy staring children in white clothing and the old ‘isn’t someone crying blood a bit freaky?’ staple then you won’t be let down here.

sotd4But it’s low budget, I hear you argue! But it’s a first-time direct showing the true horror of war? Of course, and pffft, could I do any better? Certainly not, but there have been films in recent times that have shown us that commendable, gritty and original horror CAN be produced by a first-timer on a budget (‘Colin’!) and a heartfelt, character-driven story CAN be produced on little money into excellent horror (‘Harold’s Going Stiff’)! And sadly, ‘Soldiers of the Damned’ just doesn’t come up with a tick in any of those boxes for me. Not one I’d ever re-visit.

3/10

What’s Left Of Us (2013) Review

wloucoverWhat’s Left of Us aka El Desierto (2013) Review

Director / Writer: Christophe Behl

Starring: Victoria Almeida, Lautaro Delgado, William Procuik

Running Time: 100 mins

UK Certificate: 18

Format: DVD / On-Demand

UK release 11th May 2015 from  Peccadillo Pictures

“This isn’t what it looks like. This is a family.”

Ana (Victoria Almeida) explains to the viewer the supposed reality of her existence with co-habitants Jonathan (William Procuik) and Axel (Lautaro Delgado), on home-recorded video filmed in their dwelling within a now mostly-silent suburb of Argentina.

The three protagonists of this story (written by German director Christophe Behl) have adapted to life in what is now a familiar horror staple – there’s not many people around any more, habitats are incredibly well-fortified and unsettling clankings, snarls and groans can be heard on the outside now and again. Yep, the ‘zed’ word doesn’t need to be spelled out in this flick and therefore it isn’t. The plot, in a nutshell, centres on the confinement of our cast (and several hundred flies) and how they are surviving in an upside-down turned world.

wlou1The location of their ‘adopted’ house (which the action never deviates from) is very well designed, with its makeshift fences and doorways and zip-sheeted coverings from room-to-room, as a realistic apocalyptic setting. The three characters have taken to recording their thoughts and frustrations (mostly concerning a complex and tortured love triangle) in a private ‘Consulting Room’, speaking candidly to the camera and filing the finished video cassettes into a locked chest. However, as is so often the case with these best-laid plans, this rule they are meant to adhere to, along with others, begins to become bent, ignored or over-ridden, leading to tensions and heartbreak.

And these tensions are the key point to this stylish horror film – it showcases the lately-emerging phenomena of the ‘zom-drama’ (to coin a less-than-catchy title for it). One IMDB review I read commented that the piece could easily be performed as a theatre production and this is certainly true due to the singular location and heavy focus on the character relationships, and each one’s expression of their difficulties to struggle on mentally and emotionally. As with a number of ‘infection’-based films and TV shows of the last decade or so (e.g. The Walking Dead at times – although of course at others that’s still zombie-thrill through and through!), the personal drama here is so much the focus and so absorbing that one almost forgets what’s going on ‘out there’ – the turned world is secondary to the dynamics played out by our trapped trio.

Indeed, forgetting the outside threat is made easier by the fact that not many shuffling types are really seen here and the fright factor is not whacked up high. Okay, so of course I may be losing some of the more gore-inclined of our readers here on the matter of giving this film a watch, but please don’t let the lack of out-and-out scares put you off – this is well worth any horror fan’s time. The three actors are convincing and compelling in their roles – Lautaro Delgado in particular as the brooding Axel, and Almeida as the conflicted lone female near breaking point. The editing is effective and the cinematography understated, yet constantly keeps up that feeling of intrusiveness and claustrophobia. Even the ‘head zombie’ here is portrayed (excellently by Lucas Lagre) in an original light – staring both intently and never quite vacantly at what the living can’t see, and moving in a jittery, almost equine fashion that is neither ‘Bob’ nor beserker.

wlou2The bottom line is, if you want a film that’s a chomp-fest and has you jumping three feet from your seat regularly, there’s going to be little to interest you in ‘What’s Left of Us’ – but if you like your horror more ‘high-class’ with a good slice of human interest and drama, you will enjoy it just as much as I did. Behl has created an original concept here and used fine actors to bring it to fruition, avoiding jump-scare tactics and reminding us that sometimes the psychological really is scarier, through highlighting a fear of lack of privacy, living in close quarters and the perils of obsession and indeed true love, right up to the saddening, nihilistic ending. He has also managed to think up an innovative way of showing the passage of time within the film (watch and see). ‘What’s Left of Us’, all in all, is something of a gem and left me truly impressed and pleased I got the chance to view it. Don’t let this one pass you by.

8/10

WHAT’S LEFT OF US is released on DVD and On-Demand from Peccadillo Pictures. You can buy now from Amazon, Rakuten, HMV, iTunes and all other good retailers.