Judge Gordon Sullivan love you long time, especially in haunted house.
You'll never forget the terror that lives inside.
Around the turn of the 21st century it seemed like Americans suddenly recognized that horror films were made in other countries. Though fans of the genre had long appreciated the macabre offerings of other countries, the first few years after 2000 saw a number of Americanized version of popular horror films from other countries, which seemed to kick off a transnational horror renaissance that continues to this day. The main influence, at first, was Japan, with films like Ringu and The Grudge. When distributors had scraped all they could of J-horror, hungry eyes turned elsewhere, especially to Korea. A Tale of Two Sisters and The Uninvited temporarily sated appetites. But people want more horror, and with House in the Alley, sights have been turned on Vietnam. As the first horror film to come out of the country, House in the Alley is a worthy effort, even if it doesn't quite have the world-conquering power of the best international horror offerings.
Facts of the Case
House in the Alley opens with Thao (Ngo Thanh Van, Once Upon a Time in Vietnam) giving birth to her first baby. Sitting with her is Thanh (Son Bao Tran, Inferno), her husband. The gouts of blood clue us in that something is wrong, and the baby is stillborn. We pick up the couple a few weeks later. Thao is despondent, and Thanh does everything he can to support her, but she's starting to get visions and the House in the Alley hides a dark secret that's somehow connected to their stillborn child.
Music, horror, and love are three of the most trans-cultural aspects of humanity. All humans seem to share in rhythm, fear, and romance. Most horror films from outside the U.S. give us one of two options…either they dress up a culturally-specific monster in familiar clothes, or they give us a different perspective on the same horror stories we're used to hearing. House in the Alley is much more the latter. Viewers who grew up on films like Rosemary's Baby will be familiar with many of the problems that plague the film's central couple. We've got a young couple who've just moved into a fixer-upper (which makes it extra creepy). We've got a miscarried baby. We've got an inconsolable mother. We've got things-that-go-bump-in-the-night. Finally, we get familial tension as the mother-in-law makes life difficult, especially for her son Thanh.
These are all tried-and-true horror tropes. What doesn't come out of Rosemary's Baby is borrowed from Psycho or every other horror film about a ghost haunting anyone. However, there's a reason this material is near-universal. Even though, thankfully, not everyone has experienced the horrific loss of a child, most viewers have felt the anxiety of dealing with something new, from an apartment, to a relationship, to parenthood. House in the Alley takes that familiar terror and amplifies it, turning tragedy into horror.
What's really special about House in the Alley is what it reveals about director Le-Van Keit, who seems hell-bent on leaving his own visual imprint on familiar material. We've seen this plot and these characters before, but in Keit's hands they're made strange again. The title should clue us in that the house is an important part of the film, and Keit dresses it perfectly. It has that rundown-but-with-potential look that so many horror houses posses. The way Keit shoots it, though, it becomes something more than a mere backdrop but not quite a full character. Instead, its cluttered and peeling features mimic the cluttered and peeling emotions of the characters. At the center is the tiny coffin that Thao can't bear to part with, her stillborn child still inside. It's a bold move, putting a dead child at the physical center of the film's space. Elsewhere, Keit gives us a new perspective on old tropes, including a bloody-rare steak dinner shared between Thao and Thanh.
Shout! Factory gives House in the Alley a decent DVD release. The 1.78:1 widescreen transfer looks pretty good for a standard def release. The transfer has to deal with the fact that the film is both very dark and pretty low budget. That means detail isn't terribly strong, nor are black levels the most consistent. With that said, given those constraints we get good colors and a near-total lack of compression artifacts. Viewers who turn the lights down will be treated to a good looking film unless they look too closely. The Dolby 2.0 Stereo audio does a similarly fine job with the material. Dialogue is clean and clear and there is some use of directional effects. Viewers might wish for a more dynamic and spacious 5.1 mix, but the one included here is far from bad. Sadly, there are no extras.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
House in the Alley gets by on the fact that Keit has a strong eye and isn't afraid to layer his horror tale with family melodrama and a bit of the psychological thriller. The main problem is that this is a stew we've tasted before. Keit's strong sense of composition and inventive method of bringing the horror home earns him a lot of credit and makes him a director to watch, but House in the Alley doesn't bring that extra something to the table that will earn it a place deep in the hearts of genre fans. It's more likely that ardent lovers of the genre will spend the film's 94 minutes playing "spot the influence" instead.
I'm also not a huge fan of the ghost story in general, even if House in the Alley raises the stakes by giving us a recently-deceased newborn. Obviously I think that's a horrifying situation to be in, but in terms of making scares all I see is another film where a pale woman with ratty black hair over her face menaces someone else.
House in the Alley is worth tracking down for fans of recent horror films from outside the U.S. The fact that we've seen most of its elements before means it won't be that appealing to more mainstream viewers, and I doubt it'll catch on in America. That said, director Le-Van Keit has a strong eye and, as this is his debut, he'll be one to look out for.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
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