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“I've Seen Things You People Wouldn't Believe"

From a House on Willow Street (May 2017)

Movie Review by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

In Alastair Orr's From a House on Willow Street (alt. House on Willow Street) four misfits—Hazel, Ade, Mark and James—plan the kidnapping of Katherine, whose dad is in the diamond business, and from whom they plan to extort a fat ransom. Alas, once they've got Katherine in their grubby hands it becomes clear the rest of their scheme won't go smoothly, since she has her own designs—which happen to involve demonic possession.

The Sooner We Get This Over With

The film's opening credits depict a fire, which will later be revealed to form part of Hazel's backstory. Right after that we're introduced to the gang of four as they intensely discuss their intended caper. The lighting in their industrial warehouse is moody. They smirk. They glare. They sulk. The actors do their limited best to infuse lines like these with emotion and gravitas:

"This needs to be surgical."

"No mistakes."

"We ought to cover all the angles."

"We all understand the risk involved."

"None of us is here because we want to be."

"I think we can all agree on one thing: the sooner we get this over with, the better."

"This thing needs to go down without a glitch."

"It needs to tick-tick like a Swiss watch."

You get the idea. As viewers I think it behooves us to ask: are we really being treated to these clichés as the film's opening cinematic statement, or is this instead a knowingly clever, meta-commentary on the part of the filmmakers about the process of making this movie?

As you may imagine, things don't proceed surgically, plenty of mistakes are made, major angles are missed, risks are greatly underestimated, everyone is there because they've chosen to be, things take an awfully long time to unfold, there's more than one glitch, and that ticking you hear is not so much a Swiss watch as a bomb countdown.

Still, this early scene is worth paying attention to, because it sets the right expectations regarding the movie's writing. The rest of the script is consistent with this inanity. ("This place is fucked! Completely fucked!" Phew: who enjoys half-fucked locales?) Something else we learn in the opening scene is that Ade and James are cousins, which plays a minor role in the development of their ultra-light backstories.

The film's marketing gives away that Katherine, the kidnapped gal, has something supernaturally wrong with her. I'll admit I was intrigued by the premise. It felt a bit like Don't Breathe meets Insidious ("It's not the house that's haunted, it's your son"). And the kidnapping sequence, and a later return to the titular house on Willow Street, are handled well enough. Katherine herself, portrayed by Carlyn Burchell, turns out to be the movie's most interesting character. Not only is the actress' performance entertaining, but the effects used to alter her appearance, which include weird flecks of blood in her eyes, vividly bring alive her predicament.

Unfortunately, once Katherine has been dragged to the warehouse, the movie falls into a repetitive pattern of escalating blood and gore that it never manages to shake off, and in fact becomes more feeble during its finale. This repeated formula consists of each character being literally haunted by the past, and since we never get to know those pasts very well, it's hard to become involved.

Codex Taediosus – Spoilers Ahead

I've quoted Stephen King in these reviews before, and I'll quote him again now, talking about bad movies in Danse Macabre:

"You don't appreciate cream unless you've drunk a lot of milk, and maybe you don't even appreciate milk unless you've drunk some that's gone sour. Bad films may sometimes be amusing, sometimes even successful, but their only real usefulness is to form that basis of comparison: to define positive values in terms of their own negative charm. They show us what to look for because it is missing in themselves."

What is it that's missing in this horror movie? Decent writing, interesting characters about whose fates we might care, and an engaging story. (There are also some budgetary issues: for example, gunshots sound dull and tinny compared to other movies, and the CGI fires in the third act are almost as unbelievable as those flames in The Shallows. But this might be forgiven with better storytelling). As bad as that sounds, the following elements, by contrast, demonstrate filmmaking competence: lighting, cinematography, the actual framing and composition of shots, editing, sound design. These are all better than, say, the recent Rings, which boasted a significantly larger budget. So what we end up with is a pretty watchable flick that offers little reason to watch.

Because of the film's solid craft, it is possible to enjoy individual moments. We get some silly but enjoyable flashbacks explaining "The curse of Tranguul, devourer of tormented souls." (I still prefer Bagul from the Sinister films—maybe Tranguul's cousin?) I'll also give any movie that names the Codex Vaticanus points for effort. And there are a few scenes of creepy and disturbing body horror, particularly involving tentacles. It's never as blood-curdling or original as, for example, The Brood, but it gets the job done.

Is that enough of an endorsement for you to check it out? That probably depends on your affinity for diluted, about-to-expire-but-at-least-pasteurized milk.

If you do make it that far, keep in mind the rest of Stephen King's advice for when the movie's over: "After that has been determined, it becomes, I think, actively dangerous to hold on to these bad films… and they must be discarded."

Alvaro Zinos-Amaro's reviews and essays have appeared in markets like the Los Angeles Review of Books, Strange Horizons, Asimov's, Clarkesworld, The New York Review of Science Fiction and Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show.

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