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Saturday, 2 May 2015

The House on Pine Street (2015)

Directors: Aaron and Austin Keeling
Stars: Emily Goss, Taylor Bottles, Cathy Barnett, Jim Korinke, Natalie Pellegrini and Tisha Swart-Entwistle
This film was an official selection at the 11th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2015. Here's an index to my reviews of 2015 films.
The buzz was strong for The House on Pine Street and the screening I attended at the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival was sold out. It had premiered in February at the Cinequest Film Festival in San Jose, where the San Jose Mercury News called it out as one of the '6 Films You Need to See' from a schedule of two hundred from over fifty countries. Yet, while there are certainly a lot of positive aspects to the movie, especially given that it was made by a pair of recent film school graduates, Aaron and Austin, the Keeling brothers, there are also a lot of negative aspects that challenged my ability to like the film. While the end credits rolled, I found myself puzzling over certain scriptmaking decisions that broke what the film should have been. Most notably, while the Keelings had a strong and innovative idea to bring to bear, they were unable to really integrate it into their script, making the last third of the picture feel like a cheat and the ending much too drawn out. It should have finished twenty or thirty minutes earlier.

The idea is the strongest aspect, backed up by an excellent cast and some very capable crew, but it's not anything I can elaborate on without providing spoilers. Let's highlight instead that the Keelings are clearly idea filmmakers, with the synopsis of a previous film, Modern Ruins, not only intriguing on its own merits but surely influential on the evolution on this, their debut feature. It's a half hour short revolving around a young lady who struggles to stay sane at a friend's party while being followed by a camera crew that only she can see. That sounds like a surrealistic take on this feature, the sort of thing that Luis Buñuel ought to find interesting if he were still alive today, as this is a claustrophobic tale of another young lady who may also be less than sane and who also finds herself effectively trapped both in a potentially haunted house, into which she's just moved, and in the time honoured position of mother, as she's heavily pregnant. The strained relationship between her and her own mother may well be the key to the whole thing.

The young lady here is Jennifer and her husband is Luke. They're from Chicago, in which Jenny would love to still be living, but they're being set up in a house back in Kansas by her mother, Meredith. Jenny resists from the outset but doesn't appear to have much say in the matter, not least because Meredith isn't the sort of person anyone can say no to and make it stick, but also because she had a history in Chicago that is probably best left behind. The suggestion early on is that she had mental problems that affected more than merely herself and details provided later in the film emphasise that. So she's stuck in Kansas, close to mum and with Luke eager to help but reluctant to listen. That's an excellent setup for a haunted house film, which is what this quickly becomes, because Jenny is, of course, the only one who sees things, hears things or encounters things, most of which fall into the usual categories: mysterious knocks that can't be traced to a source, doors that open on their own and things that move about inexplicably.
Emily Goss is a powerful lead, gifted with most screen time by far and able to make it work. I bought into the emotions that raged around and within Jenny, especially because Cathy Barnett is just as outstanding as her mother, Meredith. I was shocked to discover that this picture is only Barnett's second IMDb credit, a full nine years after her first, in which she played the stepmother of the title character in Raising Jeffrey Dahmer, as she carried her part like a former star moving into character roles and demonstrating her true talent. For all that Aaron and Austin Keeling, who wrote, produced and directed the film, are brothers, this is a very female-oriented film, suggesting that their co-writer, Natalie Jones, had a substantial amount of input into the script. Men get very little screen time and, when they do, they don't get much to do with it. When one finally shows up in the script and the house with potential, he's exposed as a charlatan. That a man gets to expound the central idea at the end is somewhat offensive and certainly not appreciated.

While Jenny, and everyone else in the film, is American, I felt that she was portrayed with a great deal of European flavour, not only through her character but in how she's treated by the camera. It's an original story, but it would be believable to read it as an American remake of a French film; that's how focused it is on women and the depths of their characters. Even as what can only be described as the victim of the piece, the lead character who is tormented by the house which she can't escape and ignored by anyone to whom she attempts to relate this, Jenny is still a strong woman fully capable of strong acts. Of course, her manipulative mother is just as strong, which is neatly ironic, given where this really goes in the end. This is a power struggle as much as anything else, merely manifested in supernatural ways, and there's enough depth to explore to provide the basis of a worthy thesis. It's surprising for this to show up in an American horror movie and I doff my hat in respect to the Keelings for making it happen.

The unfortunate flipside to all this oestrogen-drenched suspense is that the men are almost worthless in this picture. Taylor Bottles is perfectly capable as Luke and Jim Korinke does a solid job as Walter Vance, a friend of Meredith's whose self-proclaimed paranormal abilities suggest that he's that one male character with potential, but neither of them really get much to do. Luke, in particular, is written very strangely. He feels like a plot twist always ready to happen but which never does. Sure, he's obviously stuck between a rock and a hard place, but that doesn't excuse many of his actions. If anything, he feels more out of place in Jenny's story than the potential ghosts haunting his house. Compared to Meredith's terminal bitchiness and Jenny's frustration, it's often hard to focus in on the fact that he's even in some of these scenes. He could easily have been cut entirely or reduced to a mere egg donor for a lesbian Jenny and an imaginary girlfriend. That would have made more sense in the bigger scheme of things.
The biggest changes needed are certainly to the last third of the film, which arguably should have been cut too. For the entire running time, we're presented with a situation and asked to fathom whether it's all really happening or whether it's just in the broken mind of its lead character. Both angles are built well, through clever construction of tension by the Keelings (Aaron also edited), strong cinematography from Juan Sebastian Baron and a decent score by Nathan Matthew David and Jeremy Lamb. Everything would have worked much better if we had been left to figure out which we favour, internally as the end credits rolled and verbally with fellow patrons after the screening. There's even a single shot, perhaps twenty or thirty minutes from the end, that would have served as the perfect point to finish. However, it carries on regardless for a protracted finalé that includes an explanation delivered out of nowhere (that isn't either of the two angles we're weighing) and a set of small endings that only serve to diminish the film.

I have to congratulate Aaron and Austin Keeling for putting together and completing an indie feature film in the US that had so much potential to do something different. For all the layers of haunted house cliché we wade through, this is never a conventional haunted house story. In fact, truth be told, it's not really a horror movie at all, more of a drama that wears horror clothing for effect. The first apparition, that shows up tellingly right after the housewarming party that Meredith springs on her daughter, apparently out of spite, is superbly handled; no wonder Walter says that the house has an interesting energy! The addition of a neighbour, Marlene, who drinks when talking about the house, brings welcome cookies but won't set foot inside and who has a pair of daughters with selective mutism, adds magnificently to the freaky feel. There's so much effectively set into motion that I can't help but look forward to the Keelings' next movie, because there's greatness in them. They just need the experience to know what they have.

And, for all that they do so many things right here, it's that lack of experience that wins out in the end. I was caught up in their ride for a long while, but they couldn't bring it home and, in trying to add more to the film, they only managed to throw a lot of it away. What they should have thrown away was twenty or thirty minutes of footage and ended the film that much sooner. This could have become worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as other challenging genre explorations of the female psyche like Wound, The Babadook or, most closely, House of Good and Evil, but in the end it falls apart on itself. People have told me in the past that reviews of mine that I felt were negative inspired them to go and see those films rather than avoid them. I can imagine this one being another such review, so I should end it with a note of caution. I'd recommend that, if you find this review intriguing, you seek out The House on Pine Street, but leave or switch it off when there's a body on the lawn. It'll play so much better that way.

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