The haunted house sub-genre has become progressively more packed in recent years. It seems like there is at least one new entry most weeks, year round, and they vary wildly in quality. This is attributable to one key factor – they are cheap to make. A filmmaker can, for a really puny budget, produce one using a small cast, small crew, and very few special effects; it is relatively straightforward to be successful too with the right priorities. Good examples veer away from the hokey jump scares mechanic and focus more on setting and character; by allowing decent space for characters to breathe, the audience is engaged in their story. Coupled with a usually domestic setting haunted house flicks have an immediate air of familiarity and as long as prospective directors don’t push the outlandish aspects of the story too much, it will be relatively effective even in less-than-competent hands. The latest entry into the ever increasing pantheon of haunted house flicks is ‘House of Good and Evil’ released in the UK by Safecracker Pictures.
When Chris and Maggie Conley experience the loss of their child, they move to the countryside to patch up their marriage and try to move on with their lives. When they find a beautiful old duplex out in the woods, they fall in love with it and immediately move in. As Chris is pulled away for work, Maggie is left alone and becomes increasingly fraught. When her attempts at decorating are constantly interrupted by the violent arguments and endlessly ringing telephone of their neighbours the Andersons, she begins to investigate the couple. A chance meeting one night reveals that all is not well at their new home and Maggie begins to wonder whether monsters are real, and closer to home that she ever thought.
At first glance, the plot of ‘House of Good and Evil’ is incredibly generic and it’s highly likely that readers will be able to name at least half a dozen movies that are almost exactly the same as the summary above. What is interesting is the way that writer Blu de Golyer, of ‘Hillbilly Horror Show’, puts together elements from different films; it genuinely is not clear whether the house is haunted, whether the Conley’s themselves are suffering from some kind of mental illness, or whether something terrifyingly real is happening to them. The setup is depressingly generic and I thought I had the plot pinned down after the first twenty minutes but, as it becomes progressively murky, I admit to being unclear as to how this was going to conclude. When the ending does arrive it is genuinely surprising and not what was expected at all; although it does feel a little forced in the manner some things are too easily tied up when others remain more ambiguous I felt that de Golyer had earned it by the end. The main issue I had with the script was to do with the characters themselves; Chris veers from caring husband to abusive and dismissive douchebag at will, and Maggie from loving wife to shrew-like harridan wildly and often without cause. I understand that these characters are established as being under great pressure and working on a failing marriage but the extent to which they are willing to tear into each other feels a tad unconvincing. That said, there is a melodramatic air to much of what transpires in ‘House of Good and Evil’ so, from a certain viewpoint, it all hangs together rather well.
Although there is a decent sized cast, the vast majority of the film’s duration features the Conleys only, often focussed solely on Maggie played by Rachel Marie Lewis. Given that so much of the movie hangs on Lewis’ shoulders she does a good job, being suitably overwrought or quiet as the narrative dictates. Similarly, Christian Oliver as husband Chris does a good job of balancing a character that is, often simultaneously, both concerned for his wife and aggressively aloof. The supporting cast are all excellent in their reduced screen time: Rob Neukirch gives an ambiguous performance as Mr Bradley, the estate agent; Marietta Marich is both wholesome and vulnerable as Mrs Anderson; and Jordan Rhodes gives neighbour Mr Anderson a creepy and threatening air whenever he is on screen. For a small cast in a low-budget indie movie, the performances are very solid.
‘House of Good and Evil’ marks David Mun’s first foray into directing and he shows real promise. Whilst suffering from the curse of deceiving box art, the movie is not horror in the strictest sense; more accurately, it’s a mystery thriller with some horror elements. It is a slow burn, taking its time to develop both the house as a secondary character and the Conleys as real people, and it all works rather well. This is further supported by some assured camera work which focusses closely in on characters when they are together but then shoots Maggie from afar when she is alone in the house to emphasise her growing isolation. Some shots are a little prosaic but as a first-time director, Mun clearly has talent and a real awareness of the language of film. The sound design is a bit wonky, relying a little too heavily on screeching violins to promote tension, but generally good; however, special mention must go to the terrible music that frames Maggie’s attempts at decorating which is both jarringly at odds with the tone of the piece and very poor in general. There are very few special effects in the piece although there is a very striking sequence involving an umbilical cord that is convincing realised using a combination of both practical and computer generated effects. If there is one criticism of the production choices it is that the film is far too long; at around 105 minutes it borders on tedious at points and I would like to see Mun employing more stringent editing in future work. There are some sequences that could stand to be shortened or even to be lost entirely without detriment to the plot; as a debut helmer though, this is something that will come with practice.
Generally speaking, what you take from ‘House of Good and Evil’ will depend on what you want from your horror; it is not graphic, not especially violent, and moves very slowly. If, however, you appreciate something more thoughtfully paced, more focussed on character, and made from an interesting mix of familiar beats, then it give it a go. It has its faults – it’s a little too long and the characters can be emotionally inconsistent – but it’s an atmospheric and interesting movie. As for director David Mun, on the evidence of ‘House of Good and Evil’, he has the potential to become an interesting genre filmmaker. Aside from many other films to which it owed a debt and that it would be unfair to list here, it reminded me stylistically and tonally of Mike Flanagan’s debut ‘Absentia’ which I loved. It’s not quite that good, but it’s not bad at all.
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