Saturday 10 November 2012

The House with 100 Eyes (2011)

Director: Jay Lee & Jim Roof
Stars: Shannon Malone, Jim Roof, Larissa Lynch, Liz Burghdorf and Andrew Hopper
This film was an official selection at Phoenix FearCon V in Scottsdale in 2012. Here's an index to my festival reviews.
The House with 100 Eyes works primarily because of contrast. On one hand, it's a notably nasty affair, which follows the people behind Studio Red as they work through the process of acquiring, torturing and killing a trio of victims in an attempt to make the world's first 'snuff triple feature'. They're 'taking snuff to a whole new level', documenting everything in order to provide a host of bonus features on their DVD. It succeeds in living up to the language touted during the intro. It's 'shocking'. It's 'depraved'. It's 'condemned'. As co-director Jay Lee points out, there are walkouts at every screening. As I saw for myself, most of them don't even get to see the nastiest bits. Yet, on the other hand, those inherently sick and twisted filmmakers are, from moment one, a rather endearing and outwardly inoffensive couple, Ed and Susan, who have carefully fitted their home for their work, in part by installing a plethora of hidden cameras, the hundred eyes of the title.

Ed and Susan are a joy to watch, which is fortunate as this isn't the sort of material many would choose to sit through otherwise. The charisma they share is because they're married in real life too. He's Jim Roof, who wrote and co-directed this film, in addition to being its most obvious star. She's Shannon Malone, who backs up him perfectly and manages to steal the show on a number of occasions. He's a charmer, who begins the film testing his microphones by singing Hello! Ma Baby, that 1889 song we know today because of Michigan J Frog. He has a contagious smile and says cutesy things like 'Happy hunting!' and 'Home again, home again, jiggety jig!' without ever seeming out of place. She's like a doll, utterly inoffensive and with magnificent giggles. Yet they make snuff films. We can't forget that pointer to depth, which creeps out throughout. He rages against cinematic mediocrity. She merely has 'a little impulse control problem'.

Because Ed and Susan are so joyously grounded, The House with 100 Eyes plays out in a notably different manner to many of its obvious comparisons. Even though it's intrinsically about torture and porn, it doesn't sit well with what has become known as the genre of torture porn. Even in its darkest moments, it doesn't carry an oppressive tone; even at its most sadistic, it's hilarious in gloriously inappropriate ways. It sits far better alongside Man Bites Dog and Long Pigs than Saw and Hostel, most obviously because it's written as black comedy, relying inherently on comedic timing to get us through the grue. It doesn't go so far as to aim for a restrained old school Kind Hearts and Coronets vibe, as it happily puts its money where its mouth is to show us agreeably brutal effects work (though it does blur out naughty bits like Japanese porn). Yet we're never far from a smile, if not a grin, and it feels right because we're laughing at the deserving.
For the most part, that's Ed and Susan, as their sick little house of cards begins to crumble and, with it, the facade that makes them such a quintessentially American postcard couple. We watch them pack their kits, bait their hooks and troll for victims, yet nothing ever quite goes to plan. It's dark situational humour, of course, but it's funny all the same. Even once they find their willing trio, nothing goes right. They're not quite as willing as they could be, or they're too willing. And then there are Ed and Susan's own flaws to add to the mix, which lead to the most telling part of the film for me. That's when Susan protests to Ed about minor indiscretions in a framework built out of major ones. We laugh not at her, but at her hypocrisy, which builds her character superbly and adds a huge amount of depth to the story as a whole. There's not much plot on hand here: a couple entice three youngsters to kill on film, that's it, but there's a lot more in the why of it.

At points we laugh at their victims, a young couple and their friend, but always because of who they are, never merely because they're victims, and that's a surprising but major reason why the film is so palatable. Clutch is a slacker musician who underachieves with aplomb and digs holes that Jamie, his girlfriend, can't always climb out of. They're here because she sees the $500 each for two hours work that Ed promises them as a beginning of a way out, the start of a better life. There's obvious irony at play here, given what we know that she doesn't, but there's also depth in her constant willingness to jump down two steps to allow her to climb up one. Their younger friend, Crystal, is harder to laugh at because she's a less willing victim. Obviously a runaway with regrets who may be younger than the seventeen she claims, the humour in her character is only situational and surreal outside elements have to be brought in to avoid the tone getting nasty.

All these characters are surprisingly well defined, with both comedy and drama stemming from their character flaws. Andrew Hopper gets least to do as Clutch as he doesn't really do anything, merely allows the world to do things to him. As Jamie, Larissa Lynch is his dynamic half, though she's too accepting to counter his passive self-destruction much. She's impressive, though to my mind it's Liz Burghdorf who shines brightest of the victims. Crystal may be the victim with the least humour to her but she has the most drama, none of which is ever actually explained, and she's incredibly good at being almost but not quite strong enough. Clutch and Jamie are clearly the architects of their own destruction, meaning that Ed and Susan may only be hastening the inevitable, but Crystal's doom feels like the hellish product of a single poor decision that she'd undo if only she could. She's the one we want to help, but of course we can't either.
What unfolds isn't going to be too surprising, but it's mostly phrased well as an interesting take on the found footage concept. At the outset, we're told that documentary filmmaker Jay Lee was sent an anonymous package containing a bunch of tapes and DVDs, which he believes are real and which he edited into this film. It's a solid way to take the found footage concept, which is a cheap approach for low budget filmmakers, but provide background, keep a narrative track and escalate to a finalé, with just enough ambiguity at the end for us to reevaluate the introduction. It gets bonus points for internal consistency (I only spotted a couple of minor slips), a believable use for a bunch of youngsters and a thoroughly different approach to drugs, not to mention the voyeuristic nod to reality television that the house with its hundred lensed eyes provides. Even better, the use of handheld footage is kept to a bare minimum, all of it early on.

It's not always successful. The most annoying thing for me (and apparently not just me) was the screaming electronic noise that apparently substitutes for static. Jay Lee feels that it adds some edge to the material, and as the editor of this supposedly real footage I can buy that he'd leave it in for effect, but I found it distracting. For such a well equipped house, with expensive hidden cameras everywhere, I was disappointed at the minimalism of its actual studio: not much more than a mattress and a potted plant. I'd have thought that after soundproofing it as well as they did, Ed and Susan could afford a bed to put the mattress on, maybe something to set the scene. Studio Red claim be taking snuff to a whole new level after all, which isn't apparent here. Judging from the screeching on Ed's home made porn mementos, he skimped on the sound equipment too, which doesn't sit well given how far he took the visual side.

These aren't major complaints though, and this isn't the sort of film that aims to be expansive in its outreach. It's hardly a Pixar movie, after all. Jay Lee obviously feels proud of the niche carved out here and has no expectations that The House of 100 Eyes will ever outgrow it. He talks about walkouts with pride, as an achievement to savour almost as much as the die hard fans who stay through Ed whacking off to a home video of him torturing some woman. He'll happily leave the moneymaking to other projects, like his most famous film, 2008's Zombie Strippers, with Robert Englund and Jenna Jameson, which is just as inviting to a wide horror audience as this isn't. This is a journey that many fans automatically won't want to embark on, just because of the subject matter; or stick with through the icky scenes which do get rather icky indeed down in the romper room. What they'll miss out on is the delightfully dark joy that is Ed and Susan.

Everything comes back to them here, because it isn't about the snuff or the victims at all, even enjoyably quirky ones like Maddie, a quadruple amputee with Stockholm syndrome who's kept in an animal carrier. Ultimately the picture wins out because its focus on Ed and Susan reflects its strongest assets, Jim Roof and Shannon Malone. Ed is the most obvious, not only because he's the driving force in the relationship but because he's so volatile, veering from caring to acidic, understanding to vindictive, pleasant to tyrannical. I enjoyed Susan more as she's endearingly mad. Though clearly one of the bad guys, it's impossible not to empathise with her often. She's like a perfect fifties housewife, merely mad. 'Susan, please don't let him kill me,' Crystal pleads with her at one point. 'You're already dead, sweetie,' she replies, politely tapping her knee. This sort of simultaneously upbeat and downbeat moment makes the movie. Contrast, you see.

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