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by Bill Gibron

7 Apr 2009


There are two kinds of musical scores in movies - those which do their damnedest to announce their presence and participate in the stories/scenes/scenarios being offered, and those that are content to sit back and act like scented candles in an overall atmosphere of shared experience and communal creativity. The former tends to make up the vast majority of today’s musical output, composers so concerned about the next job that they have to make their sonic status good and known less the next skilled craftsman take their place. We see it all over the mainstream movie dynamic, from the underrated Danny Elfman to the overrated John Williams. The latter, on the other hand, is far trickier to get a handle on. Rock and roll icons like Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood and Blur’s Damon Albarn can step out of their bandmate mode and give subtle, signature sounds to even the largest project, while the genre’s biggest names continually revert to the same old pomp and cinematic circumstance.

This passive-aggressive act is perfectly illustrated in this installment of Short Ends and Leader‘s soundtrack overview, Surround Sound. In looking at three recent releases, we find illustrations of both flash with little substance (Monsters vs. Aliens), electricity with more fuel than any film should have (Crank: High Voltage), and the kind of subtle softness that balances support with symbolic shimmer (Sunshine Cleaning). Oddly enough, in two of the three cases, the studios have decided to “accent” these offerings with the same old canned pop charts chum that’s supposed to act like a kind of instant recall. While they work in one (Cleaning), they really undermine the epic earnestness another is attempting. In all three situations, however, we can literally see where ego usurps artistry, and where a need to be recognized is measured against the ability to truly support a motion picture paradigm. We begin with:


Monsters vs. Aliens - Music From the Motion Picture [rating: 6]

It’s tough for composers to make the transition from assistant to featured player. It’s doubly difficult when you’re moving from creator of additional music (for movies like Pirates of the Caribbean and Kung Fu Panda) to producing the score for one of 2009’s possible blockbusters. That was the assignment given to Hans Zimmer protégé Henry Jackman. The classically trained UK artist who once collaborated with known pop music producer Trevor Horn, was asked to take on Dreamworks CG spectacle known as Monsters vs. Aliens. Following the tale of an everyday bride struck who grows 50 feet high after being struck by a meteor (she is then kidnapped by the government and secreted away with other so-called “creatures”) the assignment required Jackman to balance the needs of the narrative with the overall campy nature of the project. And just to make things a tad more interesting, he had to make room for a myriad of mandated “classics”, tunes taken in to suggest the 1950’s foundation for the set-up.

If Mars Attacks! and Wolfman Jack had a baby, the bizzaro world offspring known as the Monsters vs. Aliens soundtrack would be the result. Part b-movie schlock, part playlist from an out of touch studio exec’s IPod, this perplexing combination of score and songs gives sonic schizophrenia a new name. On the one hand, Henry Jackman does a marvelous job of matching the movie’s inherent camp with his over the top marathon orchestrations. Nothing here is small, not even the moments where the music drops down to supplement something sad or dramatic. Instead, numbers like “A Giant Transformation”, “A Wedding Interrupted” and “The Battle at the Golden Gate Bridge” literary excite the speakers with outsized action film scope. Then, just as the backdrop is promising something truly grand, we are taken aback by moldy oldies like “Tell Him” (by the Exciters), “Wooly Bully” (from Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs) and that Dr. Demento benchmark, “Purple People Eater”. We expect there to be some bows to ‘50s fluff when it comes to a movie named Monsters vs. Aliens. What we don’t need are the same old Happy Days jukebox tracks shoved down our sensibilities.



Crank: High Voltage - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 9]

When I arrived in theaters three years ago, no one knew what to make of Crank. It starred up and coming action adrenal gland Jason Statham and was helmed by a pair of aggressive upstart who referred to themselves by the last name novelty Neveldine/Taylor. Working on the neo-noir premise of a criminal with 24 hours to find the people who poisoned him, it was a video game gonzo trip into a wild ride world of testosterone, stunts, and scantily clad women. With an ending that suggested a possible (if highly improbable) sequel, and a growing cult following thanks to DVD, the inevitable update is here. On the negative side, the studio (Lionsgate) won’t be bothering to show the film to critics. That’s never a good sign. On the positive, however, is the sensational soundtrack from Faith No More’s/Mr. Bungle’s brilliant Mike Patton. Like a retarded rave on hallucinogenic, this multi-track masterwork is what contemporary composition is all about.

Like a kitchen sink gone psycho, this all inclusive sonic smorgasbord runs the gamut from balls out rock, ridiculous electronica, pure punk posing, and slinky lounge lizardry. There’s buzzsaw riff riots and overcharged chill outs o’plenty. Over the course of 32 astonishing tracks, Patton plays both participant and provocateur, giving Crank: High Voltage its necessary zing. You can practically see the cinematics propelling “Juice Me”, “Ball Torture”, “Shock and Shoot-Out”, and “Car Park Throwdown”. Elsewhere, Patton puts his own unusual spin on situations such as “Organ Donor”, “Porn Strike”, “Surgery” and “Epiphany”. For those used to the typical faux rock chug of the noxious nu-metal tracks that supposedly suggest brawn and battlements, the score for Crank: High Voltage is an astonishing ear-opener. It argues that, sometimes, a more avant-garde approach to aural backdrops is far more fascinating that more mock Marilyn Manson. Here’s hoping Patton continues is the realm of reel music making.



Sunshine Cleaning - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 8]

When Michael Penn broke out of his famous brother’s shadow in 1989, delivering his debut album March and the MTV hit single “No Myth”, few could imagine the eventual path his career would take. Over the course of seven albums and numerous guest stints, he’s developed an oeuvre both instantly likeable and quietly insular. Current married to pop chanteuse Aimee Mann and working on films as well as his own self-released LPs, Penn has been responsible for the music in movies by Paul Thomas Anderson (Hard Eight, Boogie Nights) and actor Alan Cummings (The Wedding Party, Suffering Man’s Charity). Now comes his work on the indie effort Sunshine Cleaning. Sharing the soundtrack with a group of neo-novel navel-gazing tracks that tend to mimic the movie’s moxie and sense of spirit, Penn delivers a likeable collection that takes its own sweet sonic time before settling it to assuage your soul.

If you liked plucked acoustic guitars, ethereal strings and keyboards, and a symphonic style that sounds like Carter Burwell channeling a college alt-rock station, you’ll adore Michael Penn’s ambient score for the recent indie quirk fest. The story of ladies working as crime scene clean-up “specialists” demands an equally idiosyncratic soundtrack, and the former hitmaker (with some help from Golden Smog, Ken Andrews, Electrelane, Bodega, Ernie Miller, and David Majzlin) turns in a lovely set of aural signatures. Each individual beat, from the laconic limits of “CB Radio and Resolve” to the buoyant beauty of “Some Ice Cream” defy easy description. More like tone poems than actual tunes, Penn plays around with character and time signatures to keep us off balance and emotionally connected. Standouts include the moving “Trestling”, the atmospheric “Trailer Park”, the personal themes for “Joe and Oscar” and “Rose and Mac”, and the terrifically tender “Mrs. Davis”. If there is one weak link, a moment so unnecessary it almost sinks the entire project, it’s the inclusion of the superfluous ‘70s stalwart “Spirit in the Sky”. Penn creates his own spirituality. We didn’t need this novelty bit of Bible thumping to amplify Cleaning‘s cosmic aura.

 

by Bill Gibron

6 Apr 2009


Has it really been ten years since Chris Seaver, the savant of homemade horror comedies, first introduced us to the world of Low Budget Pictures? Has it really been that long since we first laid eyes on that simian lothario TeenApe, that hate crime in the making known as Mr. Bonejack, or the demonic delights of Filthy McNasty? Over this decade of decadence and debauchery, we’ve come to understand the wonders of womanly bits, the hilarity of excessive gas, and the greatness that is John Stamos. Why he’s not more well known will remain a Comic Con conundrum for eons to come. Still, this fascinating fringe maverick continues to amaze us with his growing canon of exciting, eclectic schlock.

Thanks to Sub Rosa Studios, we are getting the opportunity experience more Seaver sensations. This time around, it’s the one-two punch of Terror at Bloodfart Lake, and the sword and sandal spoof Deathbone - Third Blood Part VII: The Blood of Deathbone. In each case, Seaver relies on a recognizable type - the former is a slasher satire, the latter takes on everything from Rambo, The Lord of the Rings to the entire Conan legend. Sprinkled in between is the director’s own unusual fairy dust, including shout outs to favored rock and ska bands, nonstop motion picture trivia, and just enough toilet humor to keep things comically crude. While the latter loses something in the wizards and warriors translation, the slapstick slice and dice could give Apatow and his gang a run for their frat farce money.

Terror at Bloodfart Lake

When a group of teens head to the legendary Bloodfart Lake for a little late summer R&R, they are totally unaware of the horror they are about to face. Seems a horrific crime some years before continues to haunt the vacation spot, and our motley crew of metalheads, Goth chicks, wannabe actors, and dim bulb losers are destined to face the wraith’s wrath. But it turns out that creepy groundskeeper and all around killjoy Caspian will be a bigger threat to their mini-vacation than some psychotic corpse in a scarecrow costume who suffers from a severe case of talking villain’s disease. If they can live through his party pooping fey ways, they might just survive a few days of random bloodletting.




The Terror at Bloodfart Lake is indeed one of the best things Chris Seaver has ever done - and this is the dude who delivered the remarkable masterworks Mulva: Zombie Ass Kicker, The Karaoke Kid, and The Film Crew. It combines the most memorable parts of his past perversion epics while continuing to strive toward a more mainstream maturity. For someone who used to utilize a point and shoot style of filmmaking acumen, this is a very accomplished picture. The visual element is exceptional and Seaver experiments with framing and angles like never before. Even better, his writing has become smarter and more assured. Instead of going for the gross out gag every couple of seconds, he relies on characterization, repeated riffs, and pure situational set-ups to fuel his funny business.

In fact, watching how he’s grown over the years, it’s comforting to see the kind of polish and professionalism he now shows. In the past, Seaver could be criticized for being the most insular of moviemakers, gathering together his high school friends to make private comedies that few could follow or fully comprehend. Now, as humor has come around to his way of thinking, the oddball asides and direct dives into genital juvenilia work wonderfully. Even better, for those of us who stayed the course, the depth of his slightly skewed world view is obvious. This is not just some geek who spent too many hours in front of the TV, soaking in everything his VCR had to offer. This is someone who has absorbed all of popular culture, from Star Wars to Star Search, from random rap rhymes to epic fantasy metal and manages to make them his own.

Oddly enough, when he tries to mimic others, he sometimes comes up short. While not as drop deal hilarious as Terror at Bloodfart Lake, Deathbone is another triumph for the talented auteur. Yet since he is using a wealth of recognizable films and types for his translation of the macho Middle Earth actioner, the farce doesn’t seem so fresh. Still, this story of an elfin girl who goes on a dangerous journey to seek the help of her kingdom’s mightiest warrior is a wonder to behold.

Deathbone - Third Blood Part VII: The Blood of Deathbone

You see, despite his rather doughy physique, Deathbone is the fiercest, most ferocious conqueror in all of Mucklark. He even has his own nubile assistant and freelance troubadour. When a young elf asks for his help in rescuing her friend and freeing the valley from the ruthless reign of the Goblin King, he can’t refuse. Along the way, they will face all manner of hideous beings, including trolls, monsters, and a fat friar with revenge on his mind.




As he did with Mulva 2: Kill TeenApe, Seaver once again relies on a recognizable film type to foster his wicked wit. Unlike the previously mentioned movie, however, he is far more successful here that in past attempts at parody. Maybe it’s the type of film he’s fooling with - the hero vs. evil conceit is rife with its own sense of implied ridicule - or the performance of a puffy and bloated Billy Garberina that seals the deal, but whatever it is, Seaver is rock solid. Sure, he lets the movie go on for far too long (at almost 100 minutes, this is like his Gone with the Wind) and indulges in elements that don’t fully payoff (the cliché contest). But unlike his Tolkein trip-up Quest for the Egg Salad, the combination of Stallone stupidity and a hip-hop Magic: The Gathering really works - even if the action scenes are more chaotic than well choreographed.

Again, Seaver flawlessly utilizes the camaraderie of his cast, and their chemistry really shows. Especially effective is longtime LBP player Meredith Host, who has to carry most of the exposition and audience identification. She also is the brunt of Deathbone’s many personal putdowns, and she takes them like a trooper. Elsewhere, the always engaging Travis Indovina makes a wonderful wandering minstrel, especially when wielding an “axe” (read: electric guitar) as part of the mayhem. This is also one of the best looking films Seaver has ever helmed. There’s a lot of location work (including mostly outdoor and exterior scenes) and a real sense of scope. With professional level make-up F/X and lots of ludicrous gags, Deathbone - Third Blood Part VII: The Blood of Deathbone is a cut above his other purposeful parodies.

As he enters his next ten years, as marriage and fatherhood have radically altered his priorities and his proclivities, one wonders what Chris Seaver will dream up next. He already has something entitled I Spit Chew On Your Grave making the convention rounds (can somebody say redneck revenge splatter film???) and he promises to continue cranking out the LBP product as long as the audience wants him to. Judging from his continued growth as a filmmaker, as well as the overreaching talent on display, Seaver should have several more decades in the limelight. Anyone who doubts that need only check out Terror at Bloodfart Lake and Deathbone - Third Blood Part VII: The Blood of Deathbone to understand why. 

by Bill Gibron

5 Apr 2009


Oh boy - here we go again.

It’s been a little less than three years since UK trickster Sacha Baron Cohen has been out of the cinematic limelight, and the world has actually been better for it. For everyone who thought his ambush comedy Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan would reset the standard for big screen satire, the Apatow based truth is tough to swallow. Indeed, Cohen’s creative bent, which basically mandates that real people interact with his over the top, politically incorrect conceits, dissipated along with the mainstream fortunes of Johnny Knoxville, Bam Margera, and the rest of the similarly styled Jackass crew. And while the Brit wit has been off manufacturing his next film, the world of humor has stumbled over into frat boy bromance territory masterminded by the Freaks and Geeks guru and his FoA pact.

All of which leaves the fortunes for the upcoming Brüno (also given an unwieldy subtitle - Delicious Journeys Through America for the Purpose of Making Heterosexual Males Visibly Uncomfortable in the Presence of a Gay Foreigner in a Mesh T-Shirt) up in the air. Taking another character from his Ali G Show and sending ‘him’ off into the straits of Bible Belt America may seem like something clever, but let’s not forget the love it/loathe it revisionism that faced the comic’s previous character from Kazakhstan. While funny, it wasn’t the full blown rewriting of the laughfest rulebook that many felt it would be. In fact, some saw this emperor as half-dressed the first time around. They continue to wonder how long it would be before the rest of the faux funny business façade would drop off and disappear.

One look at the ersatz ribald “Red Band” trailer for Brüno indicates that said designer duds are now indeed just a birthday suit. As he did with race in Borat, Cohen attempts to turn gender equity and lifestyle choice into the savage social commentary with unlikely everyday Americans (and occasional oddballs) taking the brunt of his brutalizing. Homophobia is played up, as are any issues involving masculinity, machismo, and manliness. Cohen is shown attending self defense classes, asking how the nonplused instructor would defend himself against dildos. There are also moments of man-on-man action, full frontal nudity, and the always surreal setting of fashion shows and the accompanying Weeks in both New York and abroad. Probably the most controversial moments occurs when Brüno “adopts” an African baby. As a crowd of startled individuals look on, Cohen commences to throw every racial stereotype onto the fire as fuel for the crowd’s increasing rage.

Scandal is nothing new for Cohen, or for Brüno for that matter. There have been reports during production of fights with designers, near arrests, ruined bits (mostly because of the actor’s new higher profile), and an overall inability to fool all the people all the time. Then, a little over two weeks ago, the MPAA slapped the film with the commercial kiss of death known as an NC-17. One assumes it’s for sequences like the one which has a couple of half dressed gay men “making out” in front of a group of flabbergasted rednecks. Naturally, such a judgment is being used to Brüno’s advantage. Director Dan Mazer (a Borat vet, stepping in for an MIA Larry Charles) has stated that, while he will edit the film to meet the MPAA - and studio - mandates, the “Unrated” DVD will be ‘amazingly awesome’.

Still, all of this pre-publicity (the film doesn’t hit theaters until 10 July) begs a certain question regarding content, to wit - are people really interested in seeing this kind of comedy once again? For all its oversized (and since recanted) praise and box office conquering, Borat succeeded primarily because there was nothing like it before. No one had attempted to mesh reality with fiction in such a massively mock documentary design. Sure, there was a Candid Camera type quality to what Cohen and company were doing, but they never made any bones about the individuals in the lens. The people the production interacted with were fooled, but the lack of any ‘hidden’ facet meant they were unknowingly complicit in the ruse. By the end, when the film was raking in the cash, lawsuits came, but not because the plaintiffs had an actual case. As with most participants left outside of success, they simply wanted a piece of the pie.

And yet Cohen hasn’t really tried to broaden his comedic perspective here. This looks like Borat recast in mincing metrosexual satire. Laughs are supposed to come from bigots staring bug-eyed as Queer Nation makes its musky, man-love stand. At least our Kazakhstani reporter had some old school superstitions (the entire “gypsy tears” routine) to expand its scope. One fears that Brüno won’t be able to move beyond its basic one note ideal. No matter the character’s status as a Euro-trash fashionista, there is only so much one can do with sexuality. After a while, the gags become obvious and labored. Indeed, watching the Red Band trailer, one senses that this will feel like a TV length sketch stretched to movie size sameness.

When he appeared in Tim Burton’s brilliant take on Stephen Sondheim’s majestic Sweeney Todd, many argued that Cohen was finally embracing his undeniable talents and moving beyond the ‘gotcha’ groove that brought him to the forefront of fame. Even with Brüno on the horizon, they sense the actor/comedian’s desire to break free from the self-made mold and expand his cinematic status. Here’s hoping that with the final aspect of his Ali G Show finally making it to movie screens, he’ll drop the ‘madman on the street’ shtick and really trade on his seemingly remarkable skills. In some ways, Sacha Baron Cohen is indicative of the British post-modern ideal of wit. Like Russell Brand, or Ricky Gervais, they will take a certain type and basically beat it into the ground until audiences and admen are sick of it. Brüno will truly test whether Cohen can continue on this path. Here’s betting that, come August, he’ll be gratefully going in a different direction. 

by Bill Gibron

5 Apr 2009


As a rule of cinematic thumb, in the CG genre, there’s Pixar…and then there’s everyone else. Or sure, some studios - Fox, Dreamworks - can claim massive commercial success, and the occasional bit of visual inspiration, but when you weigh the aesthetic qualities of, say, an Incredibles or a Ratatouille against the purely for profit marginalizing of Monsters vs. Aliens or Ice Age, the creative differences are staggering. For some reason, the San Francisco based company recently purchased by Disney for a massive amount of money just can’t do anything wrong. Even their lesser works (at least, in the eyes of some cynics) like Cars and A Bug’s Life beam with imagination and novelty. It would be nice to say that Universal’s recent attempt at capitalizing on the computer for making its cartoons - an adaptation of the children’s book The Tale of Despereaux - was as good as something like Finding Nemo or Wall-E. Instead, it’s merely a small step above other fairy tale attempts like Shrek, or Hoodwinked.

In the kingdom of Dor, soup is everything. There is even a yearly celebration of all things broth and stew. But when a visiting rat named Roscuro accidentally frightens the Queen to death, the King bans all soup and all vermin. For some reason, this causes his entire country to suffer under relentless dark clouds and endless, agonizing drought. Even his usually jovial daughter, Princess Pea, longs for happier times. In the meanwhile, Roscuro finds himself exiled to the dungeon, where he takes up with the rest of the rat population. He eventually meets a little mouse named Despereaux Twilling who, unlike the rest of his kind, doesn’t scurry or cower in the presence of people. Curious to a fault, this tiny critter with the massive ears and a giant heart befriends the Princess. He promises to help her. But when an ugly servant girl betrays her Highness, the rats decide to get even. It is up to the unlikeliest of heroes to help.

Like the title character in the story it tells, The Tale of Despereaux (new to DVD) is a noble effort that more or less manages to create a kind of instantly likable post-modern fable. Unlike previous narratives set in those mystical lands “once upon a time”, Kate DiCamillo’s yarn is all about bravery, loyalty, courage, and forgiveness. If it wasn’t set inside a visually striking cartoon realm, we’d swear we were watching some clichéd After School Special. With an interesting vocal cast including the good (Emma Watson, Tracey Ullman), the bad (Matthew Broderick, Tony Hale) and the just plain weird (Dustin Hoffman, Stanley Tucci, Christopher Lloyd), co-directors Sam Fell and Robert Stevenhagen try desperately to make this universe appear pulled from an intricate hand scrolled manuscript. The colors are washed out and tinged with gold, the character design drawn directly from old Victorian sketches and full physical exaggeration.

And for a while, it works. We get drawn into the details of Dor, sit astonished at the intricacies of the similarly styled Mouse and Rat Worlds. We marvel at the framing and composition, enjoying the forced perspective of seeing everything from a tiny rodent’s point of view. Sure, we sometimes have to overlook some less than articulate movement on behalf of the characters (the film was rushed into production, with only two years to complete it), and there are times when the facial work is so realistic it’s almost scary (this is especially true of Robbie Coltrane’s grieving jailer Gregory). Yet just as we are prepared for something seminal, just as Fell and Stevenhagen appear poised to deliver something really epic, The Tale of Despereaux remembers its ‘educational’ themes and resorts to retelling them over and over again. It doesn’t help that narrator Sigourney Weaver is on hand to hammer them home as well.

Besides, Broderick’s onscreen doppelganger isn’t much of a main subject. He seems passive and unwilling to participate until the end, allowing aspects of the story to shift wildly out of sync before jumping in to join the fun. Instead, Despereaux is rather self-indulgent, his supposed non-conformist bent meant to hide what appears to be a rather arrogant streak. And since Broderick’s voice is as meek as the kind of animal he’s essaying, things grow even more “mousy”. Kids will adore his cute, cuddly body and big, billowing ears, and adults will find little wrong with this G-rated fare (aside from a decidedly dark turn once Despereaux is sent to Ratworld to be “eaten”). But when you sit down and compare it with other efforts currently flooding the family film market, this is one tale that just can’t hold its own.

Then there is the subplot involving the slightly deaf servant girl who’s jealously fuels the final act’s manipulative mechanics. Expertly voiced by Ullman, she’s still an obvious plot device used to manufacture unnecessary sympathy and a villainous patsy. Indeed, we wonder what she has to do with the story initially, that is until Weaver works us over again with one of her proverbial passages that just scream “important”. But when she ends up being a quasi-antagonist, brainwashed by Roscuro to take the Princess hostage, everything starts to fall apart. Oddly enough, anyone who is a fan of DiCamillo’s book will probably wonder if anything is left of the original. A quick glance at the tome’s narrative indicates significant departures here - clearly to keep the wee ones from having to experience anything like death, fear, anger, or despair.

Indeed, with its minimal bonus features and all-empowerment narrative, The Tale of Despereaux is like a new age version of a great Grimms idea. It neuters anything that could have made the movie memorable and instead goes for wholesome goodness and gold-lined imagery. That’s not to say that the results are bad, just occasionally boring. Unlike its perfectionist peers at Pixar, or the mass marketing mantras of Fox and Dreamworks, Universal wants to have it both ways. They will take a title that offered it own unique and complicated take on the qualities that make a hero and dressed it up in PC pronouncements and the best of touchy-feely intentions. Again, you will be entertained during the relatively brief running time. But like the moviemaking maxim says, there’s the best, there’s the bad, and then floating somewhere around in the middle is the bearable. The Tale is Despereaux is more than that - but not much more. 

by Bill Gibron

4 Apr 2009


It’s unique among fundamentalists - the decision to take Christianity into arenas where it previously could find little or no purchase. After all, musical mediums like punk and hip-hop would seem antithetical to giving God (and his celebrated son, JC) his due. And yet all throughout faith-based music, genres are retrofitted to provide a Good Book provenance and potential profitability. It also happens a lot in more “popular” entertainments. There’s religious comedians, religious cartoons, religious cooking shows - even religious sitcoms in which belief is as much a character as the wacky neighbor or the suspicious landlord.

Now, it appears, movies are the next medium to be explored. No, not the typical Passion Play recreations, or Revelations inspired End of the World. Instead, various heretofore untapped genres are being tweaked to take on all aspects of faith. Take the work of Frank Peretti and Ted Dekker. Both are noted writers of Christian fiction specifically aimed at the horror audience. When the latter’s solo serial killer effort Thr3e was made into a semi-success film in 2007, it looked like the floodgates were unleashed for literal stories of good vs. evil. Oddly enough, the adaptation of Peretti and Dekker’s collaboration, House avoids most of the religion for standard scares - and suffers because of it.

Jack Singleton is a writer who can’t get over the death of his young child. Stephanie Singleton is his rising country singer/songwriter wife, and the person he blames for his daughter’s drowning. While on their way to a marriage counselor, they come across an accident. The local sheriff directs them to a shortcut, but soon our couple is hopelessly lost. Stranded after a run-in with some random debris, they make their way to a rural mansion/motel run by Betty, her suspicious son Pete, and the mysterious maintenance man Stewart. There they also meet psychologist Leslie Taylor and her businessman boyfriend Randy. Unfortunately, everyone soon discovers that a killer named The Tin Man is in the area, and he has one small request - a dead body before the son rises, and everyone else will live. Without the sacrifice, they all will die.

Like most movies where belief makes up a good percentage of the narrative rationale and resolution, House has a very hard time with its dogma. No, it doesn’t fudge faith to fit some eccentric approach to God. But it does lack the bravery to put the Big Guy out there and up front. Under the guidance of stylish journeyman Robby Henson, what could have been a dark and demanding meditation on forgiveness and the power of Christ instead plays like a limp episode of Friday the 13th: The Series. There are moments of intriguing atmosphere and the performances support the attempted suspense and dread. But when you want to make a movie about angels battling demons for the souls of some obvious sinners, do we really need so much faux fright film finagling? Peretti and Dekker are trying to use the genre as a means of making a bigger point. Apparently, someone forgot to inform the rest of the production.

It’s a common problem with Christian entertainment. The balancing act between beating people over the head with the power of the Messiah and the need to tap into that secular pile of mainstream cash creates quite the dilemma. House talks a good game at first. We get foreboding, foreshadowing, and flashbacks that offer disturbing (if clichéd) character conflicts. The trio of twisted innkeepers come across as Addams Family odd at first, with only their true disturbing intent coming across later on, and while we don’t particularly like the quartet of guests shacked up for the night, the narrative doesn’t dwell on their selfish, senseless indulgences. Heck, we even buy the whole “Tin Man” element of the story, up to a point.

But once House goes Saw, meaning once it emphasizes the moldy green cinematography and traps everyone in an ethereal “game” of going back in time and confronting their past, the movie goes off kilter. The drowned child storyline has some initial intrigue, even if it is filmed in an annoying, ‘greenscreen as dreamscape’ manner. Here, Herman isn’t too obvious in his aims. But when Leslie is given over to her Something About Amelia rants regarding a pedophilic Uncle and the “pies” he brought as seduction aids, we lose all patience. It’s not because House hamfists this material. Instead, the notion of childhood sexual abuse is turned into a trick, a gimmick to get us to the next sequence of supposed scares. It feels manipulative and mean. 

The same is true regarding the introduction of trapped “child” Susan. We know she’s not real, the film treats her as a fiction, and yet Jack is so desperate for a daughter substitute that he’s willing to risk everything to protect and defend her. The random Satanic symbols mean nothing to him. Nor do the moments when Betty, Pete and Stewart go brimstone and start spewing black smoke. His obsession with the gloomy Goth girl is so disorienting (and so beyond the boundaries of basic horror movie survival norms) that we begin to doubt our interest. When the Tin Man finally arrives, in the persona of one Michael Madsen, the expected showdown never materializes. Instead, there are a few scripture-ish invocations, some semi-successful CGI, and that’s it.

And again, that’s the biggest problem with films like House. When you place God against the Devil and ask for them to bring it on, Big Willy style, the results need to be as apocalyptic as that sounds. Or if you can’t afford an F/X epic, at least be honest with your commercial constituency. Audiences will buy almost anything as long as it is proffered with a far amount of polish and determination. Here, Herman tries for something spectacular, and then pulls back, fearing a fundamentalist backlash. Light banishing dark just ain’t gonna do it. We need the literal flames of Hell licking at the fence posts of the Pearly Gates, and House just can’t handle this. Instead, it turns tail and runs. Up until this point, it’s an above to only average journey into terror. Once religion gets pushed into and then back out of the picture, the movie can’t man up - and that’s a shame.

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