For a movie about a real-estate bargain that turns out to be far too good to be true, it seems perversely appropriate you have to forgive a lot - I mean a lot
- to get into The Wrong House
(a.k.a. House Hunting
). Eric Hurt's low-budget American horror story comes with a litany of caveats that are almost objectively bad, bad, embarrassingly
bad, from a dull, mawkish script to a cast who don't know what to do with it half the time to amateurish direction and effects. It sounds like the pitch for some godawful DTV piece of torture porn, and the prologue seems as if it's headed there at full throttle with Hurt counting up the ancillary revenues all the way.
And then slowly but surely the director reveals he's going somewhere very different. It's not as if the film suddenly morphs into something more professional - half the lines still clank like a hammer dropped on the floor, the direction falls way behind the most workmanlike sitcom camera setups and the production values are laughably shoestring in places. But the way The Wrong House
comes together over ninety minutes is extraordinary. The presentation is never more than endearingly clunky, if that, but the story underneath is one that ought to shake you to the core.
Two families are after a new place to live. First the Hays, Charlie (80s stalwart Marc Singer) his new wife Susan and sulky, petulant teenage daughter Emmy; second, the Thomsons, Don (character actor Art LaFleur), his wife Leslie and their cocksure teenage son Jason. Both encounter a mysterious stranger looking to offload his woodland retreat at a knockdown price. But after finding Hannah, a terrified, mute girl (Rebekah Kennedy) fleeing through the forest and wanting to get her to a hospital, they suddenly discover they're trapped; the road keeps leading them back to the house.
It is difficult to overstate how gratingly low-rent much of this plays out, from the leaden exposition to Singer's constant attempts to out-ham William Shatner to the hilariously awful editing and camerawork (sorry, Eric, seeing the same car drive repeatedly across the screen as day turns into night simply isn't a harbinger of mounting terror. More like giggles if anything). There's a feeling of weary resignation as you settle in for yet another lonely house with something nasty hiding in the woodshed, where ghosts pop up at the edge of every other frame and all the cast meet gruesome deaths and, no, wait, it turns out that's not really
what Hurt is trying to do.
While it's fairly obvious - and later made explicit - that the house wants both families literally at each other's throats there's nothing forcing them to do any such thing. We find out pretty quickly that the house keeps its unwitting guests fed and watered, so weeks later they're still there. The Thomsons are more settled; Leslie's become domesticated, after a fashion, trying to make the best of a bad situation. The Hays are more chafing at the bit; Susan's consumed with the knowledge that if she wasn't trying to play nice with Emmy she'd never have come here. And both families are still trying to grill Hannah for clues as to exactly what happened to cause this.
It's not much of a surprise each of the families is hiding some kind of secret, much less that these secrets tie in with the reason the mysterious realtor wants to see them suffer, but awkward script aside the way Hurt introduces them is surprisingly subtle. The director seems fairly conscious audiences are going to pick up on this angle fairly quickly, as in he doesn't go calling attention to each and every one of the unexplored tensions, but at the same time he doesn't rush things, either. The cast don't always get to see each other's dirty laundry in Big Reveals; often they find out something, but they're not sure what, and this changes their outlook more than a straight answer would have done.
That sense these people really are prisoners, and what a long period of hard time does to them is possibly the most emotive thing about the film. Some of them give up early on, and every step past that is a long slide into Looney Tunes. Others never stop pushing at the fence, looking for a weak spot, and the way Hurt plays the two sides off each other (or how some of the cast swap sides) is startlingly effective. One sequence where it looks like there might be a way to escape is simultaneously hilariously simplistic and deeply, seriously unnerving, a haunting image for all it's seemingly been sketched by monkeys.
This is a film that throws up enough cognitive dissonance to bring on a tension headache. There's enough terrible acting in here to keep a generation of YouTube satirists in business (though some of the cast do have their moments, particularly a late monologue from LaFleur). Technically it's rough cut material at best, at worst a mess. And yet there's something beneath that which moves with the rhythms of the greatest short story you've ever read. If Hurt had just a little more resources, or a script doctor or some kind of mentor or, well, something, The Wrong House
could easily have been a masterpiece
It's not, obviously, not even in bizarro world. All those caveats need to be acknowledged, and you wouldn't blame anyone for creasing up laughing before they were even done with the prologue. But for all the ham-fisted execution this is still arguably a more cinematic, more engrossing piece of work than countless other films released this year - no smartass wisecracks, no multi-million dollar CG, just a story that takes you places and a horror film that's actually god damned scary. You have to forgive a lot
to want to buy into The Wrong House
, but it's still one of the best deals of 2012. If you get the opportunity, go schedule a viewing.This review of The Wrong House comes from its screening at Grimmfest 2012, which ran from 3rd-7th October at the Dancehouse Theatre, Manchester, in the UK.