Allana Bale, J.P. Davis, Pawel Delag, Heidi Dippold, Leslie Easterbrook, Julie Ann Emery, Michael Madsen, Bill Moseley
(Lionsgate; US theatrical: 7 Nov 2008; 2008)
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.