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 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.
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.
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.