A decade ago, a news story from Japan made flesh crawl around the world. A homeless woman in the town of Kasuya entered a man’s house and hid in the closet, where she lived undetected for a year while the man went about his life oblivious to the intruder. The homeowner installed cameras after becoming suspicious when food started disappearing from his kitchen, which led to the woman’s discovery. Not long after the story broke, horror authors incorporated variations on this bizarre event into their work, producing some creepy tales that I half-remember from old editions of Best New Horror.
The primal violation of one’s private living space, and that sense that something is lurking in our home is a powerful locus for horror. It is what stands behind the classic urban legend whose punch line is that the threatening phone is coming from inside the house. That emotion is also the premise for Open House, a frustratingly awful horror movie that began streaming on Netflix this weekend. The movie is all the worse because it came close to being a passably bad horror movie before taking the plunge into confoundingly wretched.
I say this as someone who has both great affection for horror movies and a tremendous tolerance for all manner of horror movie sins as long as the movie makes some kind of emotional sense and produces a satisfying experience. This, however, is the kind of movie that telegraphs the presumed plot with allusions to H. P. Lovecraft stories—a character listens to a band called Dreams in the Rat House, referencing two Lovecraft tales about unwelcome home invaders—and thinks that the name check is a substitute for story.
Written and directed by 27-year-old actor Matt Angel and writer Suzanne Coote, The Open House is a postmodern movie, and all the worse for it. Angel, who by media accounts is the brains behind the film, has clearly watched many, many horror movies and knows the individual scenes and pieces that make a movie but has no idea how a story comes together from those pieces. Individual scenes and sequences in The Open House are very good, but the movie never adds up to more than the sum of its parts. Indeed, many of the parts are irrelevant, useless, or counterproductive and should have been cut out. There is perhaps 45 minutes of story in the 94-minute movie. Watching it, I was sorely tempted to cut it down into a tight, effective episode of a Night Gallery-style anthology series. Similarly, I had a visceral dislike of the ultra-sharp digital video used to film the movie. It made the movie’s mountain setting stand out beautifully, but since horror is, at root, the depiction of a nightmare, the crispness of the images at almost supernatural resolution cast too bright a light on the proceedings, dispelling the nightmare with the preposterousness of it all.
The Open House tells the story of a high schooler named Logan Wallace (Dylan Minnette), whose mother Naomi (Piercey Dalton) takes him to her sister’s mountain home after the sudden death of Logan’s father Brian in a ridiculous car accident while buying milk. Naomi’s sister thinks that a change of scenery will help the pair recover from their loss, but there is a condition attached to the offer: For six hours each Sunday they must vacate the idyllic home so real estate agents can open the house for tours in hopes of selling the vacant property.
None of that information plays any role in the actual plot of the movie. All of it could be struck out or condensed down to 30 seconds of exposition.
The long and fitfully effective middle section of the movie is its best. Little things begin to cause unease in the home. Objects aren’t where Logan and Naomi remember leaving them. The pilot light keeps going out on the water heater. The phone rings with no one on the other end. Unfortunately, the first and second acts are also full of plot holes that are never explained or resolved, red herrings meant to suggest a backstory that Angel forgot to tell. There are also a few too many jump scares that take the place of genuine tension.
This section of the movie resembles nothing so much as Paranormal Activity, a movie I didn’t care for, but which did similar creepiness in a more effective way. Angel, however, overplays his hand in trying to generate scares. He lets us see too early that the odd events are caused by an intruder, and instead of letting the intruder linger half-noticed in the background—as the viral Too Many Cooks video did so perfectly a few years ago—he instead underscores each background appearance with a music cue that calls too much attention to it. It also unintentionally underscores another point of contention: What kind of house can someone walk through day and night with no one hearing anything? The Japanese example cited above proves it can be done, but I can’t even sneak a cookie from the kitchen cabinet without everyone in the house hearing. Planning elaborate death traps seems a bit harder.
The final act of the film is so wretchedly awful that it undermines the competent but unspectacular first and second acts. If you are so inclined to watch The Open House, I won’t reveal everything except to say that Angel’s choice to avoid any explanation whatsoever for the killer’s actions, including the killer’s identity, his motivation, and even the technical details how he does what he does renders the whole story essentially moot. The characters are not dealing with a killer so much as a contrivance. Oh, and like Super Dark Times and Sins of Our Youth before it, the movie randomly takes place at Christmas just so a scene can be scored with Christmas carols for a cheap emotional contrivance.
Minnette and Dalton carry the weight of the film, garnering the majority of the screen time. A few other characters wander through to act oddly and say portentous but meaningless drivel that ultimately has nothing to do with the story. At times, though, it seems as though the two leads are acting in different movies. Minnette, 21, has acted in an astonishing number of projects for someone his age, including 13 Reasons Why, Goosebumps, Don’t Breathe, and Awake, and he has developed a genuine talent for portraying sad but fundamentally decent teenagers. Here he plays another variation on the same—in fact, he is almost duplicating the character and beats from Goosebumps, to the point that you could swap scenes unnoticed to make for a better film. But Dalton is playing a more traditional horror character, dumb as a post and lacking logical motivation. When Angel’s script has her suspecting her own son of terrorizing her, it rings horribly false because Minnette radiates greater decency than the script seemed to want for Logan, and Dalton’s shrieking accusations come out of nowhere. Similarly, her choice to stay in the house long after the unfolding horror becomes obvious because she claims to lack the money for a hotel is the kind of stupid choice that only a movie character would make. I can imagine a version of the story where a young actor with an angrier approach to the character might have produced a more interesting tension with Dalton’s heightened horror movie approach to the material, or one where the mother’s character was smarter, but either would require a better script and better direction.
As it is, the movie is a failure. I will give you fair warning here that, against my usual policy, I intend to say a few words about the awful ending. Consider yourself warned.
At the very end of the movie, we discover that an unnamed, unseen serial killer entered the house during the open house and remained inside after the real estate agents left, proceeding to terrorize Logan and his mother with an escalating series of cat-and-mouse games, for reasons never explained. The killer, being completely anonymous, is consequently without motivation, and his comings and goings are similarly without explanation or, seemingly, plausibility. When he forcibly removes Logan’s contact lenses, simply so we in the audience cannot see his face as the camera adopts Logan’s perspective, it is laughably ridiculous. I get that Angel was aiming for a killer who likes to play creepy torture games, but the failure to set up any sort of motivation, or to follow through on the concept, makes each appearance of the killer ineffective. But the greatest sin of all is one of my personal horror pet peeves: killing off all of the characters and thus severing the audience’s emotional connection (if any) to the film. This technique only works if one or both of two conditions are met: (a) the deaths become a locus for catharsis, or (b) we have transferred our emotional connection to a charismatic villain. You cannot identify with a faceless plot contrivance, and there is no way this movie will reach the grandeur of tragedy, so the whole thing becomes simply unpleasant.
Angel and Coote have the gall to end the movie with what seems to be setup for a sequel.
But it turns out that it was the weekend of disappointing premieres. I also watched the first episode of The Alienist, and I really wanted to like it. I love the Victorian era, and an expensive period drama about the Gothic horrors of the criminal underworld should have been right up my alley. I enjoyed the extremely similar Ripper Street immensely, and I expected… well, I expected something more from The Alienist. The TV series is based on the 1994 novel, whose popularity in turn helped inspire a wave of Victorian murder shows over the past two decades, including, I suppose, Ripper Street, which makes it ironic that The Alienist feels like a flat, ugly knockoff.
The Alienist is an unpleasant story about an early criminal profiler who attempts to find the murderer of boy prostitutes in the New York City of 1896. The pilot is dark, with so little light that the elaborate sets are mostly invisible, as are the streets of Budapest used for filming. The story is uninteresting. The pilot fails to generate either interest in the main characters nor intrigue in the mystery. I did not care who killed the prostitute, nor did I much light the title alienist, his New York Times artist sidekick, or their female policewoman. The characters were dull, but the acting was worse. At no time did I believe any of the actors were Victorians. Their mannerisms were too modern, and they lacked a certain rigidity that shows through in the photographs, films, and recordings of the era. Even when the Victorians were goofing off, they simply held themselves differently than we do today. All of the actors come across as Millennials playing dress-up.
It appears that The Alienist is a competently made show, and it is sumptuously produced. But it is more stereopticon than kinetoscope. A better show would probably know what that meant.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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