THE HOUSE squanders its horror anthology potential and ends in disappointment

Introduction

Hey Kweens and Kings,

This is a review for The House. The House is a stop-motion animation anthology film produced by Netflix. I’m reviewing this movie because one of my supporters paid for a commission review. If you’d like for me to review a movie you’re interested in there’s an official commission form on my Ko-fi page. But generally if you become a supporter and send me a message somewhere you’re interested in a specific movie I can typically accommodate. The likelihood of me reviewing a movie goes up if the film is readily available on streaming services. I may not make the video immediately, but I’ll get around to it.

I want to talk about two things with this movie. I want to talk about its framing mechanism with “the house,” and I want to talk about its high quality production.

Background

Not a lot of background to go over for this movie. Netflix has invested in original animated projects for some time. One thing I’ve appreciated about this initiative is the wealth of adult-orientated animated content. Too often animation is pigeonholed as a style for younger audiences. Netflix shows have worked toward dispelling that perception with things like BoJack Horseman. I was also pleasantly surprised by Blood of Zeus in 2020. I thought it was more mature of a story than I was expecting. Netflix makes stuff like this all the time but I don’t usually watch it. Generally, I don’t really vibe with animated films. I may be victim to the stereotype I just described but that’s where I’m coming from when I watched this movie.

Premise

The House is a stop-motion animation film orientated toward an adult audience. It is a unique coincidence I am reviewing two stop-motion animated films in the same month with some odd similarities. Check out my review of Mad God if you’re interested in this kind of thing. The House is difficult to assign a genre, but it has a lot of light horror elements. It mostly relies on surreal or disturbing imagery to unsettle the audience, but I wouldn’t call it “scary.” It’s also an anthology film, so there are three separate stories with unique characters that don’t appear in the other stories. The tone of each story is a little different. The connection between these stories is they all take place in “the house.” A structure built for one family but continues to deliver misfortune to its other owners. The first story you can view as an origin story of the house set in the early 20th century. The second story is set many decades later in the modern day, and the last story is at an unspecified future date after society’s collapse.

Framing Mechanism

My biggest problem with this movie is it felt like a prompt for a writing group rather than an actual story. It is as if a producer walked in and told three separate studios “make a movie set in a haunted house” and this was the result. Which is fine… but as I got further into the film I felt like I was wasting my time. There isn’t much of a connection between the three stories, so it is difficult to talk about this film in general terms because my thoughts are specific to each of the three acts.

The first story comes across as an origin story for how this house exists. This family lives in the middle of nowhere. They host the father’s relatives for a night and his family expresses their disappointment in him. He spends the night drinking due to stress and has a strange encounter with some man in the forest who says he will build him a house for free as long as he promises to live in it with his family. The house is built almost immediately and things only get stranger from there. The identity of the house’s architect is mysterious, the architect’s surrogate seems to be hiding something, and the workers in the house are uncommunicative while making constant changes to its design. I thought this story was effective at piquing the audience’s interest in what’s going on with this house and its creator, but that interest doesn’t have any payoff. The origins of this house are not relevant to the other two stories, so whatever you “learn” in this story doesn’t really matter. Which means this first part is only worthwhile if it has something of value on its own.

I thought the setting of a family in a strange home was vaguely similar to The Shining — another horror story about a family slowly going insane in isolation and they started to grate on each other. The opportunity for a story like that is examining the interpersonal relationships within the family unit and how they get stressed by the situation. If you don’t have that human element, the movie would be like an amusement park haunted house. Weird stuff happens on the sides as you wonder through it, then it just ends because it’s an amusement park attraction. This first story felt like a Haunted House ride. It doesn’t have much of a human element. We experience much of the strangeness of the house through the eyes of the eldest daughter Mabel. She sees oddities throughout the house but the rest of the family has this attitude of “ho hum, well that’s weird.” They don’t have conflict between each other. Even as the father gets notably more insane than everyone else, his wife and children just accept it. It is as if they knew this story was only meant to introduce us to the concept of The House and nothing beyond that. I came to accept that purpose as well. If this is an anthology and this first story is meant to set up the rest of the movie, then this first part was a success. I was intrigued by The House and wanted to see how the rest of it connected together.

Which made the second story all the more disappointing when it became clear there really was no connective throughline for these stories. The second story is about an independent contractor trying to flip the house and sell it. He has a roach infestation just before his open house and the story becomes a man versus nature story as he tries to exterminate the bugs. I thought this second act was more interesting as a standalone story compared to the first. I thought the back-and-forth between the contractor and his attempts to repair the house was a good dramatic dynamic. His anxiety throughout the open house showing was an engaging point of conflict. There is also an interpersonal conflict toward the end of the story which was unsettling. This second story had a lot going for it but I just couldn’t get over how completely irrelevant it was to the first act. The only connection I could imagine is they’re both stories about how a house terrorizes its occupants. One story is supernatural and the other is a more believable roach infestation. They both depict a malevolent house in different ways. I guess I can see the connection, but this is where I go back to my initial critique that this movie feels like a writing prompt rather than a story. I don’t understand why these two films were packaged together as if they had anything to do with one another. The only explanation I can think of is because it was a writing prompt for three creatives made separately then slapped together. It would be as if you wanted to do a double feature of “Daniel Craig solves a mystery” and packaged together Knives Out and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Those movies have nothing to do with one another.

I’m not going to talk about the third story because I think it sucks. It is easily my least favorite. Though that might be because it’s when I realized this movie wasn’t going anywhere. On top of the sense of aimlessness, I really didn’t like the third act’s characters. They’re like hippie new age druggies. I never like that type of character and they are meant to be especially annoying in this story. It’s also the only story that isn’t unsettling, disturbing, or scary. It’s kind of boring. To the extent there is any conflict it is flatly silly. The entire world has flooded and died but the main character’s primary concern is collecting rent from her tenants — as if there’s a free market for her to go buy things in the flooded world. Maybe this was meant to be the point. She’s so disconnected from the reality of the world, unlike her hippie neighbors or whatever. I don’t care. The movie lost me at that point. By the end of it I thought the movie did not justify its existence. It’s not offensively bad, but I didn’t find a lot of value in its narrative.

Production

To the extent The House has something worth seeing, it lies in its animation quality and other production elements.

This is one of the better examples of stop motion animation I’ve seen in recent years. I feel obligated to acknowledge I reviewed Mad God earlier this month, which is really the peak of this style, but The House is still very good. In the first act where human characters are used, I thought the small face/big head aesthetic heightened the surrealism of the setting. There’s one scene where a man is crying and the changes made to his face were accentuated because of the art style. It made that scene more effective at presenting how unhinged this character had become. At some point in that first story the stop motion animation became invisible to me which I consider a good thing. I wasn’t getting distracted by thinking how they technically achieved a scene or camera movement, I was engaging the film on its own terms and the art style contribute to that. The aesthetic serviced the mood the film wanted to make. It’s whimsical and pleasant on the surface but again heightens the surreal moments when they show up. I thought this was true for the whole film.

The biggest heavy lifter for the production is the music in this movie. The composer is Gustavo Santaolalla (sant-ole-LIE-ya), I know him best from his work on The Last of Us but he started with film scores for other movies like Brokeback Mountain and Into the Wild. Since so much of this movie is letting the audience gaze at the strangeness of what’s happening on screen, it relies a lot on the music to aid the film in achieving its unsettling tone. I thought it did a really good job with that, especially with the first act.

I think the best example of the production’s success is in the second story when the contractor meets with two very strange prospective homeowners. They’re introduced after a technical malfunction with the lights, so this scene becomes a perfect blend of everything great about this film’s production. The exaggerated physical attributes of the homeowner, the ruffling of the hairs on one of their heads, combined with the gravelly voice acting, flickering lights, and low buzzing sound underneath it all creates a very unsettling atmosphere. This was one of the best moments in the film and it’s not the only one. The House is effective at creating a mood when it wants to and that’s because of the technical chops of its production.

I have nothing bad to say about the technical elements of this movie, but for me personally it’s not why I would ever go watch something and I don’t think I’m alone.

Closing Thoughts

The House is effectively three short films back-to-back. In the short film community, everyone knows the biggest challenge is the fact absolutely no one cares about your short film. Think of all the times you had the opportunity to watch a short film, online, for free, and you didn’t. All that content is sitting out there and you don’t watch it. There are short films by famous directors legally available on YouTube. No one watches them. I think this is because people intuitively know short films are not usually in service to the audience but in service to its creators. They are beta testing a visual style or they want to prove they can produce a coherent film so they can get funding for a bigger project. If you’re like me and you watch movies for the chance of a meaningful experience. You’re not going to get that from what is effectively a tech demo. That is what The House felt like. An exceedingly competently made film with a fairly loose premise and not much beyond that.

I’d give this movie a 3 out of 5. It is fine. As I said before, it’s not notably bad. It’s a movie I am totally ambivalent toward. Which is how I feel about the majority of Netflix’s original films. They are excessively inoffensive. The production quality is very high. If I were a producer I’d greenlight a project from all three creators. They seem to know what they’re doing. I just wish they dedicated their skills toward something with more of a point.

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