Those of you who keep up with this blog know that last week was Shark Week, and while it was a lot of fun, it was also a lot of work critiquing one movie a day. So I figured this week, I’d take it easy, and shake up last week’s creature spectacuganzafest with a good old-fashioned haunted house film.
I occasionally make confessions in these entries about things that make me uncomfortable, and given the subject matter of this movie, it seems fitting that I do so here. Obviously, clowns are creepy, as are children, dolls, and hospitals. Condemned insane asylums are usually freaky, along with orphanages, and anything featuring homicidal, unstoppable ghosts falls into the category of “frightening”. (Enter The Cradle from Thief 3: Deadly Shadows, arguably one of the creepiest video game levels ever created, and certainly among the most atmospheric.) Classic 1700s Southern mansions, like the one in this movie, don’t typically automatically get deemed “creepy”, but it often doesn’t take too much to tip them over the edge.
“Look, honey! How lovely! OUR terrifying past will feel right at home here!”
House of Bones follows the crew of the Ghost Hunters parody Sinister Sites as they prepare to film a new episode about a mansion in Louisiana, the Wicker House. Quentin French (Corin Nemec, Sand Sharks; Parker Lewis Can’t Lose), the host of Sinister Sites, is forced by the network to travel to the house and film on location in a last-ditch attempt to keep his show running (after all, “the fans just think the CGI’s awful”). He is preceded by producer and lead investigator Tom Rule (Ricky Wayne, Real Steel; Monsterwolf); lead investigator Greg Williams (Marcus Lyle Brown, Mammoth; Monster’s Ball); tech manager Simon McAllister (Collin Galyean, Quantum Apocalypse; The Dunwich Horror); production assistant Bub (Kyle Russell Clements, Battleship; Quantum Apocalypse); and local psychic Heather Burton (Charisma Carpenter, The Expendables; Buffy the Vampire Slayer). The crew arrives at the house early, convincing realtor Sara Minor (Stephanie Honoré, Mirrors 2; The Final Destination) to let them stay the night in the house to be able to film while it’s dark outside. Naturally, as things start to turn deadly, they begin to regret their choice, struggling to survive as the house itself turns against them.
Top left – Quentin French; top right – Tom Rule; middle left – Greg Williams and Simon McAllister; middle right – Bub; bottom left – Heather Burton; bottom right – Sara Minor
If you haven’t yet seen House on Haunted Hill (that’s the Vincent Price original, mind you. And apparently there’s a color version, but the black and white was just fine for me), I’d recommend it. It’s a really good look at what a haunted house movie can be slash sets the standards for what those movies are. By no means is it perfect, of course, but by and large it’s pretty good. House of Bones, while obviously being several incarnations apart, still struck me as being a good blend of modern movie sensibilities crossed with throwbacks and homages to the haunted house movies of yore, as it were. While many ghost movies suffer from very poor CGI (as I’ve written on here and here, for example), House of Bones showed only a bare minimum of glowy mist and see-through specters, and when they did appear, the effects were typically either short in duration or fairly high in quality. What I’m trying to say is that House of Bones was made without the use of the terrible, campy CGI that drags down so many SyFy Channel movies. It certainly had CGI, and here and there it suffered, but not once while watching it did I remark on how bad the effects were. Given the usual for SyFy Channel, this lack of terrible effects was an unexpected and extremely welcome surprise. Moreover, while the dialogue was nothing outstanding, it remained where it should have, namely, unnoticed. The cast, on the other hand, was clearly above the standard quality typically found, and not only was everyone solidly decent or good, but they also seemed to click with each other in a way often missing from B movies.
“She’s hot. I guess I’ll follow her… annnnd now I’m stuck in a wall. Great…”
Given the absence of CGI effects, you may be wondering how this movie managed to be unsettling (and to me, it was definitely unsettling, unnerving, and creepy). The answer is that they did wonders with atmosphere. The setting – an old mansion with a terrible past – helped, of course; the grounds of the house are overgrown with vines, a dilapidated shed sits eerily in the back, and numerous crosses, dream catchers, and bones hang from a tree in the yard. But what really did it for me was the constant use of views through video cameras. Camera views in movies open up wonderful opportunities for suspense or jumps, as you can have an apparition suddenly appear, or something someone sees with their eyes not appear on video, or all manner of creepy things, and the creators of this movie took full advantage of those possibilities. Add in nearly-unheard screams, or an old radio unexpectedly broadcasting one of the characters crying for help while a demonic voice quotes from the Book of Revelation, and you’ve got a really good start towards having an unsettling haunted house movie without needing awful CGI. Now, don’t get me wrong; there were numerous predictable moments, and all too often, the movie built really good tension and suspense only to waste it too quickly on a decidedly bland reveal (for example, Heather has several occasions where she sees flashes of past atrocities committed in the house, but although they work well at building tension, they never make a return appearance later on). But by and large, the movie surprised me most by how effective it was.
Never a bad way to start a horror movie
Smile! You’re on haunted house camera!
“Say hello to my little… aw crap”
There were three major problems with this movie, though, that need to be expanded on. The first, as I mentioned, was the wasting of well-built tension. Constantly they created a really good and effective build up to something, and then released all the tension in an ineffectual moment that left me feeling unsatisfied. Significantly, this included the ending of the movie. There’s a certain inevitability that builds faster and faster as the movie goes on and the mystery of the house gets explored by the characters, and with that inevitability comes a necessary building hope that somehow, one or two of them will manage to survive and beat the house. Then, when that hope gets dashed to pieces, the full weight of the movie is felt. But this kind of tension really only works effectively when the stakes get raised faster and faster as the movie progresses. If the pace of the buildup and release of hope and suspense isn’t done just right, it comes across as shoddy work, and sadly, this movie suffered this fate. As the movie ended, I couldn’t help but feel as though the creators needed another half-hour or so to pace everything just right to wield the effect of the movie successfully, but unfortunately, they didn’t have that extra time, and the end of the film felt sudden and forced, as though they knew they were out of time and decided they had to wrap things up as quickly as they could.
“Just two… more… minutes…”
The other place where this movie suffered was the characters. While the actors did a remarkable job, the movie lacked a strong, clear central character. Now, I’m all for the idea that a movie or television or book series shouldn’t protect the main character simply by virtue of them being the main character. I very much prefer the stakes to be real, and to constantly be unsure who will live and who will die. Despite that, if a movie feels like it’s missing a strong protagonist, it can leave the viewer feeling ungrounded, which is perhaps my biggest complaint about this film. To me, it seemed to imply that Heather was the central figure, as she was the one who connected with the house and kept figuring out what was going on. But she never took a central, leading role, instead staying in the background and reacting to what was happening, rather than taking charge.
And who else is gonna lead? HIM?
As is often the case with supernatural or haunted house movies, there was no science that stood out as questionable in this film. However, there are a number of points I would like to discuss regarding human psychology as it relates to horror movie characters.
So here you are, in a 250-year-old house, built by a guy who experimented with witchcraft on slaves to try to figure out how to live forever. Since his death, rumors of disappearances and murders follow the house throughout history, the last known case being in 1951. When you get into this house to film it as part of a Ghost Hunters-esque television show, and the local psychic starts telling you about the bad feelings she’s getting from rooms and objects in the house, you laugh it off as stage bluster. Makes sense. Then your production assistant goes missing while setting up cameras, and after a camera gets dropped in a wall, it comes out covered in what looks like mucus or something grosser. So what do you do to try to find your production assistant? Obviously, the best idea is to have two people separately search the upstairs, staying apart from each other as long as possible! Naturally! But seriously, every single time, people split up. Admittedly, in the beginning, there’s something to be said for incredulity, but once you have camera footage of someone fading away, in a quite literal sense, then you have to believe that something strange in going on. Doubly so once the resident psychic starts coughing up hair, though by that point, it’s probably too late.
“I’m thinking we should split up to explore the creepiest parts of the house…”
“…like this. Go in there alone. That’s a good idea, right?”
This movie also, at least tangentially, raises the issue of reality. At one point, Heather says to “trust reality”, as though it were that simple. But what makes reality for us? Is it what we perceive? Descartes would disagree with that, as he argues that our perceptions can fool us (and of course, we’ve all had that happen at some point). And when you hallucinate that you’re on a dissection table being cut open alive (as in a recent episode of Alphas), does it really matter whether you’re being cut open by masked doctors or by your own doing? In other words, if the effect is the same regardless of the cause, is it really that important to know the actual cause?
“Forget reality, just get me the hell out of here!”
Anyway, that’s House of Bones for you. Better than expected, better than standard SyFy, and an all-around pleasant surprise. Enjoy!