Judge Clark Douglas will do his best not to tell you what he is really talking about.
Our review of House (1977) (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection, published October 22nd, 2010, is also available.
The guilty cannot hide.
An R-rated Christian horror film? What's up with that? Is it any good? Let's find out.
Facts of the Case
Jack (Reynaldo Rosales, She Hate Me) and Stephanie (Heidi Dippold, The Sopranos) are a married couple on a road trip. Their marriage has been under a lot of strain lately, as they've been forced to deal with some rather difficult personal issues. Somehow, they manage to get lost and wind up on the wrong road. The local sheriff (Michael Madsen, Reservoir Dogs) tells them about a shortcut to the interstate. They take the shortcut, but an accident deflates their tires and leaves them stranded in the middle of a back road. Fortunately, there's a rural motel nearby that can provide Jack and Stephanie shelter until a tow truck comes the next day. At the hotel, they meet a couple named Leslie (Julie Ann Emery, The Riches) and Randy (J.P. Davis, The Curse of the Komodo). Shortly after arriving, the four unsuspecting guests of the hotel receive a message from a mysterious killer calling himself "The Tin Man." The killer issues an ultimatum: deliver him a dead body by morning, and the remaining three guests will be permitted to go free. The game is on. Who will make it out alive?
Fans of Christian fiction will undoubtedly be familiar with Frank Peretti and Ted Dekker, two well-regarded representatives of the genre. Both have written a generous supply of best-selling thrillers over the years, and in 2006 they collaborated on a book called House. While House received somewhat less enthusiastic reviews than the solo works of the two writers, most claimed that it was quite an engaging read. Both writers have had their works adapted as films in recent years (The Visitation, Hangman's Curse, and Thr3e, all of which received poor reviews), so I suppose it's only natural that House receive the big-screen treatment. Even so, House more or less represents a step into new territory for the Christian film genre: It bears the dreaded "R" rating.
That's not quite as sensational as it may sound. Apparently, the filmmakers were hoping to achieve a PG-13 rating (the same rating the aforementioned thrillers received), and made an appeal when the MPAA decided to slap an R on House. Alas, the appeal did no good, and the filmmakers were forced to make a decision: Make the necessary cuts to make the film a PG-13 Christian movie, or use the R rating to market the film to mainstream fans of slasher horror? They opted for the latter, using atypically mainstream marketing methods to promote the film (and generally avoiding placing advertisements on Christian websites, publications, radio, or television shows). It was a somewhat bold move, and it's nice to see Christian filmmakers making an attempt to reach new audiences rather than merely appeasing their built-in fan base. Unfortunately, my praise for House has to stop there.
Is House a Christian horror movie or just another horror movie? Both, I think. The film begins with a Bible verse from the book of John: "The light shineth in the darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not." That's about the only explicit Biblical reference you're going to get in the film, and apparently the filmmakers took it quite literally. Later in the movie, there is a scene in which actual bright light turns a bad guy into burnt toast, Dracula-style. Comprehend that, darkness! There are metaphorical Christian messages (albeit theologically confused ones) buried in the muddle here, but you won't spot them unless you devote time to looking for them (as I was, since I knew what Dekker and Peretti were all about before watching the film). There's a lot of vague hocus-pocus involving demons, angels, The Devil, God, and themes like forgiveness and redemption, but there's really no more religious substance here than there was in the average Hollywood religious horror flick like The Reaping. In fact, I'd argue that that House is less of a Christian horror film than, say, The Exorcist or The Omen, which deal with the good vs. evil spiritual battles in a far more explicit (and compelling) manner.
Religious issues aside, the movie simply isn't very good. It borrows well-worn plot devices from just about every horror movie ever made. I present as evidence:
Item 1: A creepy-looking sheriff laughs in a particularly evil way and tells the couple to take a shortcut. No one should ever take a shortcut in a horror movie, particularly not when Michael Madsen tells them to take a shortcut, but such is life.
Item 2: The motel is run by socially awkward young men and their incredibly creepy mother. They all act very weird and are harboring very dark and murderous secrets. Hmmm, what Alfred Hitchcock movie does that vaguely remind me of?
Item 3: A flashback scene shows the main character suffering from madness, typing the same words over and over and over again on a typewriter. The Shining, anyone?
Item 4: A creepy, mask-wearing killer locks four young people inside a run-down building and asks them to play a deadly game. By doing this, he hopes to test their character and find out about their values. Wait, is this Saw VI?
You get the idea. The filmmaking is mostly rather sloppy, featuring obnoxiously distorted and desaturated images, music that seems comprised entirely of loud stings, and endless flashbacks featuring happy characters becoming unhappy. As with far too many Christian films (and horror films, for that matter), the acting is extremely wooden. All four leads are completely forgettable, and Michael Madsen seems to sleepwalk through his role. Only Bill Mosely, Lew Temple, and Leslie Easterbrook (all veterans of Rob Zombie's horror flicks) manage to make an impression, and that's because they go waaaaayyy over the top. The violence in the film is certainly strong enough to warrant the R rating, but far less gruesome than something like The Devil's Rejects or Hostel. The R rating almost feels like a fake I.D. here, because the film is downright prudish in areas other than violence: not a single instance of foul language can be found anywhere in the film, nor anything remotely resembling sexual content. While I don't think the latter needed to play a role here, the situation more or less logically demands the former. I don't think there are many people who wouldn't start swearing up a storm after being locked in a house of hallucinations with a serial killer for a while.
Frank Peretti touched on this issue in an interview he did just after finishing the book. He was asked what discouraged or frustrated him about Christian speculative fiction writing and/or publishing. His reply: "Not much. I suppose I could complain…or perhaps just chuckle…about the built-in expectations of the industry and its readership. I and other authors have exchanged many an anecdote about what so-called Christian readers expect and/or demand from Christian fiction: humor is still pretty rare, moral dilemmas have to be cut and dry and easily resolved, profanity is not allowed…we've noticed that it's allowable for a character to kill, stab or shoot someone as long as he keeps all his clothes on and doesn't swear while he's doing it. Ted Dekker and I did House together, which is a dark and violent story with all kinds of bloodshed, murder, terror, and weaponry, and yet one reader wrote and took strong exception to the use of the word 'freaking' because it could be construed as a substitution for profanity. Well…maybe, maybe not, but how interesting that this reader tripped all over that one word but had no problem with that other stuff."
The transfer here is perfectly respectable, offering exceptional detail and reasonably deep blacks. Though the film is pretty dark visually, it's nowhere near as incomprehensible as it could have been. Flesh tones seem slightly off, but it's a little tricky to tell how much of that is caused by odd lighting decisions. The audio is solid throughout, offering a reasonably immersive and complex mix that should satisfy most. Dialogue is a bit distorted at times, which tends to be a somewhat common problem in low-budget horror films. There are no extras included on the disc.
Sadly, House suffers from all of the afflictions that Peretti mentions. It's completely humorless. The moral dilemmas presented are unrealistically easy and lacking complexity. Despite the fact that the film features gritty and realistic violence, the characters are not permitted to employ language to match the brutality of the proceedings. Additionally, the film constantly seems to be trying to cover up the fact that it is indeed a Christian thriller. You know what? Though I'm certainly not a fan of the sort of proselytizing, condescending nonsense that comes out of the Christian film industry on a regular basis, this one could have used a little less ambiguity. God, The Devil, and their respective armies doing battle over the souls of some stressed-out motel guests? Heck yeah. Instead, the spiritual elements are carefully diluted into nothing more than vaguely spooky hints, turning House into just another crummy and thoroughly ordinary horror flick. Too bad. Now where did I put my DVD of The Exorcist?
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