Two families go to an open house and can’t leave.
Orchestrating an effective haunted house movie is a tricky egg to crack. Singular focus on atmosphere could lead to a rather tedious experience, as displayed by the classics “The Amityville Horror” and “The Haunting of Hill House.” On the flip side, concentration aimed in the singular direction of special effects and fun house thrills seldom leads to satisfying viewing either. I submit the wretched remakes of the two previously mentioned films as Exhibits A and B for this argument. “Poltergeist” still remains one of the few that managed to combine both elements without losing the central theme that will keep the night light industry in thriving business until the end of days: This could happen to you. Even skeptics of the supernatural will concede that they are more likely to hear a bump in the night emanating from their kitchen than the howl of a werewolf raiding the fridge for a stray Budweiser. I have no clue why lycanthropes are alcoholics in this scenario, but I hadn’t cracked wise yet in this review and it was starting to get to me.
When saddled with the additional impediment of a tight budget, the options become much more limited. “House Hunting,” the first full-length effort from writer/director Eric Hurt, succeeds marvelously in cultivating a sense of dread without lulling its audience into a blank-faced, “please God let something happen in this snooze-fest” stupor. The central plot is original and rife with possibilities, the editing brisk and skillful, and the characterizations top-notch when compared to other independent chillers bearing comparable tightly-drawn purses. If only the enterprise as a whole wasn’t such a jumbled mess of unconnected ideas, this one could have shone like the proverbial diamond in the rough.
Two separate families, led by patriarchs Don Thomson (lifelong supporting player Art LaFleur, who is outstanding here) and Charlie Hays (Marc Singer, who is, well, “The Beastmaster” here) both arrive at a secluded woodland home as potential buyers with their broods in tow. The mysterious realtor (Jon Cobb), who wears a ludicrous hunter’s cap only Bob and Doug McKenzie could admire, is absent. Instead, they are met by a recorded greeting through an intercom speaker on the front porch inviting them in. Credit must be given to all involved for immediately contracting a case of the willies and deciding to take their business elsewhere. To their misfortune, keen foresight is no more helpful in a horror film than a complete lack of common sense, though appreciated by yours truly. On the way out, they encounter a terrified, bleeding young woman (Rebekah Kennedy) in the drive. Also disconcerting is the fact that no matter how many times they attempt to exit the property, the path leads back to the ominous home. This point is beaten over our heads brutally with multiple angles of Don’s SUV coming and going in a montage that could have easily summed up its intentions in half the time, but that’s quibbling over a minor cinematic infraction. Kubrick built an entire glorious career over excessive repetition. Of course, his lighting was much better.
In a stroke of attention-grabbing genius, “House Hunting” then shifts forward one month, as both families have been living in a frayed routine of frightened dysfunction, not one step closer to discovering a way out or what malevolent force is holding them prisoner. They awaken each morning to the taunting automated voice of the realtor and a pantry cupboard inexplicably stocked with precisely enough cans of beef stew to feed them all. Charlie’s new bride Susan and bitter teen aged daughter Emmy (Hayley DuMond and Janey Gioiosa, both resembling Jennifer Connelly at differing stages) remain antagonistic to one another, while Don’s wife Leslie (Victoria Vance) seems to take on an odd affection for the house, performing daily chores and occasionally sharing tender moments with the hallucinatory ghost of their deceased daughter. Older son Jason (Paul McGill) hobbles around on crutches in a sarcastic gloom, leering at both women of the Hays family. To fight boredom, they take turns assembling a jigsaw puzzle absconded from an upstairs bedroom closet which would probably spell out the word “METAPHOR” in its completion if the reveal was ever spoofed by the Wayans Brothers. You can only hope, Mr. Hurt.
The puzzle itself is nothing more than one of many disjointed elements that begin piling up so swiftly from that point, one has little option but to abandon all hope of making any sense of it. This is a well-advised strategy upon viewing “House Hunting,” because the movie itself throws any semblance of clarification or cohesion under the bus in favor of surreal imagery and baffling turns of events that would have Fellini tweeting “WTF?” immediately following a screening. Though he keeps the intensity building to a near fever pitch by the final moments, it’s quite obvious that Hurt hadn’t a clue where to take it all despite his considerable freshman talents. His handling of the camera is both artful and pragmatic given the limited means, and he elicits fine performances from his actors. As previously stated, LaFleur proves he has the presence and capability to handle a major role, especially when he confronts his future self (don’t ask, “House Hunting” won’t tell) in the woods. The only one who struggles is Singer, who thrives in the moments of quiet despair, but takes Charlie a notch or two over the top when it all begins to hit the fan. This could just be me picking on the “big star” of the show, however. After all, one couldn’t expect the guy to have gleaned any experience in the finer points of his craft on the set of “Watchers II.”
Throw in five or six unwarranted layers of foreshadowing, approximately forty red herrings and a white-faced demon whose presence defies all logic other than as an excuse to forgo the catering service for a day and blow a few bucks at the local theatrical supplies shop, and you have yourself a haunted house flicker show that will certainly not bore. “House Hunting” may bewilder. It may disappoint. For some, it may even infuriate. If you just let all that go, you’ll find yourself impressed by a strong new voice in film making. Don’t repeat my mistake. Expecting to piece this puzzle together (see, I know how to utilize a metaphor) will only result in frustration and a whole page of notes that I haven’t even bothered to glance at while typing this. Like “House Hunting,” there would be no point to it.
House Hunting (2013)