Monday 3 June 2013

House of Good and Evil (2013)

Director: David Mun
Stars: Rachel Marie Lewis, Christian Oliver, Jordan Rhodes and Marietta March

I've never been to Dances with Films, a highly regarded indie film festival in Hollywood now in its 16th year, but this year's line up is enough to add it to my list for 2014. No less than three of my favourite features from this year's Phoenix Film Festival were selected for that festival too (Down and Dangerous, Favor and Waking), along with an excellent and award winning local short film, Parallax. Purely by coincidence, I was also recently sent House of Good and Evil for review, which is screening at Dances with Films next Sunday, meaning that I can personally recommend five selections with no commonality between them beyond all being quality indie pictures. I can't ignore the suggestion that if the five I know about are great films, what about the other hundred or so that I don't know about yet? With a quick note that this festival runs at the historic Chinese Theatres in Hollywood, I'm starting to sound like a advert for something I've not yet attended.

While it's a current film, working the festival circuit before an October 2013 release date, House of Good and Evil is a throwback to the psychological horror thrillers of the seventies. The title is the first hint in that direction, as every other movie back then seemed to centre around an ominous house, with the neo-gothic suggestion that the house is a character in itself. The next hint is the pace, which is a slow but sure burn, concentrating on character development over cheap shocks. There's also the feeling that Chris and Maggie Conley, who buy the house of the title sight unseen after a lot of phone calls, have no idea what they're getting into. They choose to move out to the country, because their marriage is deteriorating after a miscarriage and the big city is becoming claustrophobic, but they have a naive innocence that suggests that they believe a change in setting is all they need. As you can imagine, their problems run deeper than that.

We can see from the opening scenes what they're running away from. These are beautifully shot and very deliberately constructed, not showing us much but ensuring that what we do see speaks volumes. We watch the Conleys in silhouette in their apartment, voyeuristically from outside in the street. Their argument escalates and ends violently. Then we see the worried couple stuck in traffic and realise that Maggie is losing her baby right there in the car. The guilt that hangs above the scene as she screams out her loss is palpable, courtesy of carefully sparse writing from Blu de Golyer and simple, thoughtful composition of frame and camera movement from cinematographer Jared Noe. The constriction felt in the city is very deliberate and it's countered well as the opening credits end and we follow the Conleys almost thirty miles out into the wide open countryside to begin the healing process in their new house. It feels like a breath of fresh air.

Of course, if it was that simple, we wouldn't have a movie, and it's far from that simple. What we see really deserves two viewings. The first allows us to experience the movie as it's presented to us, with the house slowly morphing from a beacon of hope into just another prison, because the problems Maggie and Chris have are rooted in their relationship and a change of scenery doesn't change that. De Golyer's script builds by carefully peeling away layers of civility and appearance to show the fundamental incompatibilities between them and the hidden frustrations that those incompatibilities generate. After ratcheting up the suspense and tension far enough, we arrive at a full understanding of what's really going on, realising in the process that a host of what appear to be minor goofs or plot conveniences are really cues to help us get there. Watching afresh, the cues are far more obvious and we wonder why we didn't understand them to begin with.
Much of the credit here deserves to go to de Golyer, who is not only a scriptwriter but apparently an experienced script doctor in Hollywood, having fixed more scripts by others than he's produced of his own. This would appear to be a project dear to his heart, having financed it with his wife. It was in motion as far back as 2008 when he wrote a short film called The House to use to pitch to potential financers. The cinematography on that short was by David Mun, who was involved with this production so deeply that he took the director's chair after Clint Howard left it. Another major name had also been attached for years, but had to drop out just before production due to illness. That's Tippi Hedren, who presumably would have played the role of Mrs Anderson, the elderly lady who rents the other half of the Conley's new house. Her role was taken instead by Marietta Marich, who has made two Texas Chainsaw Massacre sequels and one to Children of the Corn.

The other name that screams out for praise is that of Rachel Marie Lewis, who plays the lead role of Maggie Conley. If the film off screen belongs to de Golyer, on screen it belongs to her. She's a constant presence and the story clearly revolves around her and the way she copes with the loss of her child and her deteriorating relationship with her husband. De Golyer has raised the 'hunger in her eyes' that 'studios dream of finding' in interviews and I can totally see it. Going far deeper than just playing another woman with problems, she really gets over to us that Maggie is broken fundamentally but has become practiced in the art of hiding it. That's a fine distinction but a very important one; it underlines why Lewis gives a truly great performance rather than merely a good one. Late in the film, Maggie tells Chris that the wall that separates the two halves of their house should remain up. 'Some things are better kept apart,' she says and that thought resonates.

Lewis is American and grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, but has a European feel to her. She reminded me very much of Isabelle Adjani, both in looks and the way she throws herself so substantially into a dark role. The biggest mistake that any potential viewer can make is to expect the sort of horror movie that adds a new shock every fifteen minutes. This is a nuanced piece, reminding of times when stories began with characters and built around settings. It's initially reminiscent of American psychological thrillers of the seventies, from an old school soundtrack through a prominent house to the character of Mrs Anderson, the sort of role that golden age stars often took then, late on in their careers. In turn, those films had their roots in the gothic romances of the thirties and forties, when those stars started out. Lewis's dedicated performance adds a European feel, adding layers to an already layered script and suggesting a depth that Hollywood rarely hinted at.

Lewis is so strong here that I wonder how House of Good and Evil would have fared had she not been cast, but it has quality written all over it. Its superlative script benefits from good direction, gently leading camerawork and a highly appropriate score. The house, really a boarding school built in 1914, looks just right. The supporting cast are solid, especially Marich, who surely would be far better known had she come to the screen earlier in life. She feels like one of those old stars, but surprisingly she didn't make a movie until 1987, even though she was highly experienced in the business that is show: as far back as the fifties, she'd performed on stage, hosted a chat show on television and sung with Tommy Dorsey's orchestra. Rob Neukirch and Jordan Rhodes are able in support too, but they get less to do, the growing connection between Maggie and Mrs Anderson ensuring that the latter gets most of our attention that doesn't go to the former.
That leaves Christian Oliver, who plays Chris. He's solid too, as you might expect from an actor of his experience, having moved on from Saved by the Bell: The New Class into an interesting set of American movies and German TV shows. He's been doing big movies lately, like Valkyrie, Speed Racer and the 2011 version of The Three Musketeers, but I know him from lower budget fare such as the intriguing title role he played in Subject Two. The catch is that this film so quintessentially revolves around his screen wife, he becomes something of a prop for her to work off. That's not to say that Chris isn't well written, as in any other film he'd be a deep character, but he doesn't have anywhere near the opportunities that Lewis has as Maggie. In fact, looking back after a couple of viewings, it's surprising to find that this film was written by a man, as it delves deeply into issues that are by definition oriented around women: control, domestic abuse and the loss of a child.

I always try to highlight both the good and the bad in movies I review and it's always a joy when I find that there's very little bad to say. House of Good and Evil is an excellent film enhanced by an outstanding lead performance by Rachel Marie Lewis and it has very few flaws. The most obvious is the lighting, which gets a little too dark on occasion, but like another indie gem, Absentia, the depth of the material saves it. The tunnel scenes in Absentia became appropriately otherworldly because the filmmakers didn't have the budget for cameras that would see past the entrances. Similarly, scenes here that appear to have been shot in natural light and which get darker as the movie runs on, perhaps due to the budget or just the time of day, may serve to unintentionally mirror the changes in tone, thus turning a flaw into a boon. Depth is never a bad thing and sometimes it can feed itself, adding nuances that were never even intended by the filmmakers.

I'll certainly be keeping an eye on what Blu de Golyer does next. With work on over forty scripts behind him, I'm pretty sure he has more than one personal piece in him and I'm eager to see what the next one will be. I'm interested in what David Mun will do next too. He has a huge amount of experience behind the camera, both in film and on television, but this was his first picture both as an editor and a director. His next directorial effort is Berlin Express, currently in preproduction. Of all the names involved in this film though, I'm keen to follow up on the work of Rachel Marie Lewis. She made two features released in 2012, Transatlantic Coffee and Lie with Me, both of which look like great opportunities for her to explore her characters with as much depth as she did here. She clearly has a great future ahead of her and I can only hope that she isn't distracted from this sort of quality picture by being snapped up for big budget fluff. Only time will tell.

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