Saturday, October 1, 2016

Review: A House is Not a Home

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2016
Images from the Internet

A House is Not a Home
Directed by Christopher Douglas-Olen Ray
Deinstitutionalized Films / Tiki Terrors / Transformational Films / MVD Visual
92 minutes, 2015

Have you ever noticed that many of the horror films that focus on African-Americans are not only comedies, but really bad ones? I blame the Wayans family for that, who took a fine family cinematic heritage and ruined it the likes of A Haunted House (2013) and any Scary Movie (2000) past the first sequel. Sure there is the likes of indie director Sean Weathers who is taking a more serious approach, but generally they tend to rely on either stereotypical characters or ones that are so deep in the culture that it comes off as shrill and hard for anyone else to identify: think Beauty Shop (2005) as an example. This is a thankful reprieve from that: a serious horror film where the main characters are Black, without it being “Minstrel Show” as decried in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled (2000).

The loving but self-described “dysfunctional” Williams family move into a stunningly beautiful yet mysterious house where, we learn from the prologue (as they must always be a prologue, it’s the law), evil things are amiss, as if we didn’t know already. There’s patriarch Ben (Gerald Webb, who has worked with the director a number of times before both in front of the camera and behind it), Linda (Emmy-award winning for actress Diahnna Nicole Baxter), 16-year-old Ashley (Aurora Perrineau) and 15-year-old Alex (Vine Internet star Melvin Gregg), the latter two playing much younger than their years.
As a quick note, there were a couple of things that felt off pretty early on. First of all, while being shown the house by character actor Bill Cobbs (who will forever be thought of by me for the underrated 2000 show, The Others, though most probably will remember him from the Night in the Museum franchise), there is the closed room the Williams are not allowed into but they still buy they house. Nuh-uh, that Is not gonna happen. When we bought our modest little house, we went over every inch of it, and knew exactly what was there and what wasn’t, because we needed to know what needed updating or fixing. I mean just to start, if the last owners used a rotary phone, there may be some electrical updating needed, not to mention painting, etc. Our house had all newly painted walls by the previous owners, and then we repainted them all to the colors we wanted. None of that goes on here, they just move in. Okay, okay, suspension of disbelief, I get it. Thing is, it only works up to a certain number of times, and then it becomes less ignorable. Also, you know the real estate agent is in on/part of the mystery, because, well, they always are (in fact, I feel like I would be giving something away if I said he wasn’t).

The loving-yet-dysfunctional Williams family.
From the first night the troubled family moves in, things are already going wonky. One member is finding murder photos, another feels like he’s being followed (of course he is), another has creepy old dolls appearing that had been put away (Annabella anyone?). Oh, and the leather tablecloth is growing veins. Let me repeat, that’s the first 24 hours.

Another of the tropes strongly relied on here is The Amityville Horror (1979). We met the previous owner in the form of the driven-mad dad (which apparently must always be played by a television actor), played with glee by a heavily made up Richard Grieco (yep, the dude from “21 Jump Street,” a co-producer of this film), who is still ghosting the house covered with blood, more than hinting of a supernatural/evil force floating around.

During the day, everything relatively human seems to be happening and somewhat normal (if argumentative among the participants), but at night, things go bump and shadows roam, even in dreams. I wonder about the weirdness at night and normality in the morning; wouldn’t you talk about it with the family, or at least be shaken up? My one (possible) real-life ghost experience was mentioned the second my ass hit the chair for breakfast.

At first, there are no characters you really interact with on a deep level at first, and little character development to build on, even with their previous foibles (affairs, drinking…you know the drill), until the viewer gets “comfortable” with the family, just in time for, well, I’ll get there.

Nearly everything happens inside or just outside the door of the house, surrounded by trees, giving a claustrophobic feeling of a tiny budget. We hear the kids talk about school once, but both the adults work from home: him as an architect and her as a piano teacher. I have no doubt that it is exactly what was intended, the feeling of no way out. While this also helps with the budget, it also can be an effective tool to the story, as it is here.

Truthfully, the film drags a bit during the first half, but the mood and tone change drastically at the nearly half-way mark, and the story amps up drastically and dramatically. This begins with the introduction of a voodoo practicing college professor, Lucas St. Michelle (Eddie Steeples, to be – like it or not – forever known to a generation as “The Crabman,” from “My Name is Earl”), who comes to exorcise the house. Dressed in a fine white suit and, for some reason that is never explained even in the commentary, wearing whitish contact lenses similar to the kind used by Marilyn Manson, he unites the Williams family and joins forces with them to fight back. But is his mojo strong enough to rid the forces of evil from the abode? In today’s cinema climate, it could go either way, and I’m not going to say which.

Once the battle begins, the film really draws the viewer in, and becomes a lot more interesting. It seemed as if this part of the film was about half as long as the first half. Perhaps that is a clearer example of a bit more towards what I am trying to say.

As they roam through the house, other tropes ignite, such as the rooms changing order as they walk through the doors, as in Grave Encounters (2011), or one nasty spirit sporting dark make-up a la Insidious (2011). The smoke spirits were pretty cool looking, and the main villain, who is mostly seen in silhouette, is particularly nasty and effective, though dressed in something you might see in a 1970s gay leather bar.

The one that drives me crazy though, and this is true of more films than I can think of off the top of my head, is if the doors won’t open, why would the protagonists not try to break a window (though you don’t seem to see many windows in this house). Odds are nothing would happen, but still... Also, the only phone seen throughout the film is a rotary one (a scare device is used in relation to that object that I first saw on soap “Dark Shadows” in the late ‘60s to introduce the Quentin character, and it freaked me out as a kid); in other words, teens with no cell phones? Say what? No computers for that matter, either, that I can remember. The kitchen’s appliances seems pretty modern, though. Perhaps the filmmakers wanted to keep the timeframe questionable? If that’s the case, well, never mind.

While the film has quite a serious atmosphere, there are some comedic tones that crop up once in a while, such as a comment here and there by the son, one character giving a knowing smile at the camera – both funny and very creepily effective – and a phone number indicated as 666-1313 (with a Los Angeles area code, though the location of filming is Mill Valley, just north of San Francisco).

The acting is all fine, especially Diahnna Nicole Baxter, who feels the most natural in a most unnatural situation. She’s the one who seems the most annoyed and also the most scared of the lot. Grieco also does well, even with his mostly silent role after the intro. His stares are quite intense, and from what I gathered from the commentary, he was doing The Method method; I get the feeling he’s actually a better actor than many of the roles he’s been given.

There is zero nudity (again, serious film) and while there is some blood and a couple of semi-gore effects, this story isn’t necessarily about that: it’s more about arcing events than carnage moments, and rightfully so. There are a few jump scares here and there, but I don’t think this will really scare anyone who is reading this review. The second half, however, is definitely entertaining, even while stretching credulity at times.

The soundtrack by DJ/musician Knappy is also moody and well done, but you know things are getting really bad in the house when the same few discordant and tinny notes on the piano play over and over (yes, another trope).

The extras on the DVD include the trailer and a 10:25 Making Of documentary. Director Christopher Douglas-Olen Ray (aka Chris Ray) and actor / producer Gerald Webb sit in what looks like a home theatre and discuss the production, the cast (the core of whom also comment in on-situ interviews), and the reaction to the film, including winning Best Film at the Burbank Film Festival where it premiered, and the two adult leads also were nominated for best actor/actress.

There is also a commentary with Olen Ray Webb is quite decent. Because they’ve been friends and working together for years, they are obviously comfortable with each other, which comes across in their banter. They are respectful and don’t try to talk over each other, and they give mostly anecdotes and some information about the film that is easy to take: not too technical, and not too fluffy; but rather a conversation. There is a bit of redundancy (such mentioning Eddie Murphy’s excellent bit about Black people and horror films from his seminal – and hysterical – stand-up film Delirious from 1983), but still worth the listen.

Considering this was filmed in a single location over a mere eight days, it’s actually quite accomplished, especially the second half. The atmosphere stays moody, with some of the hue zapped out of the image; it’s not quite sepia, but it certainly isn’t a blast of color, either. Douglas-Olen Ray, son of genre cult figure Fred, has his own history of action horror (most of which borders on the WTF), such as Mega Shark vs. Crocosaurus (2010), 2-Headed Shark Attack (2011), and 3-Headed Shark Attack (2015), settles into the straight horror genre decently, without pandering to just an African-American audience, but one we all can relate to, relative to the topic of course.

Whether you turn it on from its beginning or at the half-way point, by the end you may feel satisfied with your time spent.

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