On a deserted back road in Alabama, Jack and Stephanie find themselves driving fast and running late. Their world suddenly changes when a strange accident leaves them stranded with no car, no cell phone coverage, and no help in sight. They have no choice except to continue on foot. As darkness approaches, they round a bend and see a small sign at the top of a long gravel driveway: The Wayside Inn. The exhausted couple stands in front of an inviting house, complete with gated stone wall, ancient oak trees, and a note welcoming weary travelers. Inside they find another couple with an equally troubling story about a similar accident. It seems that backwoods pranksters have made their day miserable. Still, they are safe... Or so they think.
Anyone who knows me knows I take a strict no-R movie policy for my own personal conviction, but also when it comes to reviewing movies on JFH. We made an obvious exception for Mel Gibson's The Passion Of The Christ, and have decided, after much consideration and even talking with people involved with promoting the film, to cover the Christian-made horror film, House. With the producers being baffled by the MPAA slapping it with an R rating, many parents and moviegoers have been curious as to what actually lies behind the doors of this supernatural thriller - and a rather intense trailer for the film has hinted towards a wild ride indeed.
To say I was hesitant in watching House would be a slight understatement, even having ruled out watching it entirely before the film makers began to voice their thoughts on the rating. The producers claimed the film wasn't any worse than the PG-13 summer blockbuster The Dark Knight, and after viewing House, I'd have to say the comparison doesn't quite line up. Where Dark Knight was based more on reality (ironically enough), House lays its foundation on spiritual fantasy, creating a world that never quite feels tangible or possible. The acting in the latest Batman film, as well as solid writing, helped create a believable existence for those characters, but House suffers greatly from a weak script, sometimes stiff acting, and thinly drawn characters. It retains many of the usual problems found in most Christian-made films, while correcting one big setback -- production. House often captures the look and feel of a mainstream horror flick with its colors and camera angles and even with most of its effects or makeup. For once, unlike the most recent spiritual feature, Fireproof, it doesn't look like you're watching a made for TV film on Lifetime.
The screenplay for the adaptation of Ted Dekker and Frank Peretti's popular novel was written by Rob Green who has no notable films to his credit, and no work in over a decade prior to House. This could be problem number one when it comes to the incoherence of much of the plot or the stiffness of some of the film's characters. But then again, the film also relies heavily on the acting chops of roughly five or six characters to carry the movie with no significant star power to drive it (although, I think we can all come up with a list of stinkers that have featured dependable star power). TV actor Reynaldo Rosales looks and fits the part as male lead Jack Singleton who really only runs into trouble when he's expected to recite silly or uninspired dialog (the car ride in the film's beginning is especially tough to watch). His character's wife, Stephanie, played by the fairly unknown Heidi Dippold, sadly offers very little chemistry with Rosales' Jack, while J.P. Davis is a little heavy-handed in his approach as the hot headed pretty boy big shot, Randy. Veteran supporting actor Michael Madsen isn't given much to do as the film's main creep, while Hitch's Julie Ann Emery does her best with the material at hand as Randy's flame, Leslie. Maybe the film just needed a more versed director than Thr3e's Robby Henson, but there's a distinct feeling that Dekker and Peretti's story isn't given its best possible representation here.
When it comes to the plot and approaching the horror genre, the story sticks to the formula pretty well. Our main characters are a married couple who get lost on their way to marriage counseling (?!) and find themselves stranded on a dirt road that leads them to a creepy old evil house. And like most horror story victims, the characters don't seem to know any better or suspect anything by the red flags and so they fall into what seems to the us, the viewers, like a pretty obvious trap. We're eventually introduced to the mysterious killer The Tin Man who conveys the plot to our four victims that if they don't deliver him one dead body by sunrise, he'll just go ahead and kill them all. What unfolds is a little bit of cat and mouse, a little bit of psychological thrills, and the harsh realities of mankind coming face to face with their darkest sins, faults, and fears. The story tries to expose the ugliness of man's sin through the pressures of confronting them and fending for himself when his survival is directly threatened.
Many reading this are probably wondering most about the content and the R rating. It's a tough call to say whether or not the rating was completely warranted or not. If anything, the film has the look and feel of an R-rated thriller but perhaps in an edited-for-content form (some of which I've actually seen thanks to DVD editing services like Clean Films or ClearPlay). At the same time, House is still light enough on content to feel like a hard PG-13 (a la The Dark Knight. But there have been much worse PG-13 psychological thrillers like The Secret Window or The Ring). House carries an intensity almost all the way through that a film like Dark Knight does not (believe it or not, Nolan gave us a few more chances to come up for air in that film than Henson does here). And there's a very dark supernatural overtone once the mayhem inside the house begins that is explicitly of a Satanic nature as we discover that the owners of the house worship Satan and have an elaborate shrine in their basement (hence the unsettling movie poster that I wish they had an alternative for). Instead of a slow build of creepy bumps in the night and mysterious supernatural ghostliness like in Jan De Bont's similarly shoddily executed The Haunting, House works hard through a musical score of forced dread from B-movie composer David E. Russo to sustain its intensity. The trailer is a little bit deceiving, however, about the kinds of horror or violence you might see in House, as there really is very little bloodshed or even gruesome off-screen violence. There's nothing shown in House that most moviegoers haven't seen in a number of PG-13 movies before, it's just the tone of the film that is significantly different.
As far as content goes, there are a couple times when characters are shot off screen or an instance where a man beats another man with a candlestick holder off screen, or a woman swings an axe at the house guests while inside a meat locker. Seldom is even the implied violence actually all that brutal (compared to most PG-13 rated violence, that is). Of the visible violence, we see a black gash on a person's face that oozes a sort of black mist, with a similar cut on a character's hand later on doing the same thing. We then see a character take a knife to his hand and slice it (not seen up close, but still briefly shown), and we see the resultant blood. In a flashback, a person is shot in the shoulder and we briefly see some blood, and later in the film, a person is stabbed and we see a brief, small amount of on the victim. Language is limited to two uses of "h*ll," while sexual content is limited to some cleavage shown by Leslie in a dress, as well as the revelation that a character was abused by her uncle during her childhood (as well as some comments made about her apparently using her attractiveness as temptation for men or to sleep around). Ultimately, the approach to content is handled sensitively, as with most Christian-made films, but presented in much more of a supernatural, somewhat disturbing horror packaging.
When all is said and done, House is more of a disappointment than anything. I went in expecting a lot from such a collaboration as Dekker and Perretti. House may have its moments, but the movie just doesn't seem to offer the message the film makers are hoping it conveys, therefore it does not create the impact intended (and apparently the more blatant spiritual message of the book is omitted here). A splash of a scripture from the book of John at the start of the movie is really the only direct mention of anything Christian related throughout the whole flick and really the only thing that sets this apart from being anything but a dark supernatural thriller. And what I can only assume is an attempt at a metaphorical representation of a savior figure as part of the plot development just seems more random or like an afterthought than anything natural or even sensical. Too many questions go unanswered, too much of it feels like separate ideas without enough that pulls it all together at any given point. In the end, House feels more like an unfinished idea than a cohesive one. It's unfortunate, too, because it could have - and should have - been a lot better. Sadly, the dark supernatural intensity and violence of House, coupled with subpar storytelling and terrible dialog, make this a film not really worth the price of admission or your valuable time.- John DiBiase, (reviewed: 10/31/08)
Disclaimer: All reviews are based solely on the opinions of the reviewer. Most reviews are rated on how the reviewer enjoyed the film overall, not exclusively on content. However, if the content really affects the reviewer's opinion and experience of the film, it will definitely affect the reviewer's overall rating.
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