ON DVD: 1st February, from SECOND SIGHT
RUNNING TIME: 111 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Seven months pregnant, Jennifer Branagan reluctantly returns from Los Angeles to her hometown in Kansas after an unexpected mental breakdown. Coping with her fears of motherhood, a strained relationship with her husband Luke, and the overbearing presence of her own mother Meredith, Jennifer struggles to regain control of her life. But when strange things, like objects moving behind her back and unexplained knocking sounds, start happening in their rental home, Jennifer begins to fear that it may be haunted. Is she losing her mind, or is there a dark entity within the house that is all too real?….
“It knows what scares you” says a character in the original [and best] Poltergeist, and her words kept echoing through my head whilst I was watching Aaron and Austin Keeling’s debut feature, which is also a ghost story, because the brothers certainly know what scares, and they obviously believe that it’s not so much jump scares accompanied by a loud musical note, oodles of CGI, and blood and gore [though I do enjoy all those things and they can still work well – it’s just that there’s so much more to horror], but that it’s what you don’t see, and what you can’t explain. I got up at 8am to watch The House On Pine Street, which I would have thought would never be the best time to watch a horror movie [though possibly my sleepiness after not a very good sleep actually added to my unease], but it wasn’t long before the film was giving me that rush that all horror fans crave, that feeling that combines intense excitement with intense fear, a feeling which is hard to properly explain to those who don’t watch or like horror films, but which keeps us fans consistently interested in the genre even when it’s not in a very good place and just seems to be stuck on repeat, and gives us a wonderful “high” when we come across a film which just delivers what we want. It Follows most definitely delivered that last year, at least for myself, and there were sections of The House On Pine Street which for me were almost in the same league, even if it has a much more conventional premise.
This film, the result of recent graduates from the USC School of Cinematic Arts and the University of Kansas, mostly made by under-25s, and partially funded through a Kickstarter campaign, is a pretty impressive achievement, though my enjoyment I had watching the result was tempered a little by wondering why it hadn’t got a cinema release compared to some of the dross that has done in recent years, though of course it’s a feeling that will be nothing new really for horror fans who know that the best new films are often those that seem to bypass cinemas and just slip out there with no fanfare. Influenced greatly by classics like The Haunting and Rosemary’s Baby, so much so that it almost seems like a melding of those two films [but not so much so that the film comes across as a pure nostalgia fest and doesn’t also feel modern and it’s own beast], it’s not the most original story of course, but is handled fairly intelligently and with admirable restraint, while as I said before it’s genuinely frightening for much of the time, something perhaps to do with the fact that the cast and crew lived in the film’s house for most of the 19 days-long shoot and experienced strange events.
After a good title sequence which immediately set a strong feeling of dislocation, showing random shots of the town into which Luke and Jennifer are moving to, the film then takes its time to build up to the scares, perhaps too long for some, though there’s a subtle feeling of unsettledness already, from the odd guy with the long beard who shows them to the house, to the neighbour with the two twin girls who just stare at her, to the cracks in the wall, to the domineering mother who rudely organises a housewarming party behind her daughter’s back, and so forth. Well chosen shots and use of sound show Jennifer’s uneasiness at the party [and we’ve all probably felt like her, being at a party we don’t want to be at and feeling like we don’t belong there], and then her mother’s chiropractor senses “a very interesting energy” in the house. It’s after here that the frights commence, and yes, it’s all stuff we’ve seen and heard before – loud knocks, doors opening, things moving, a child seeing presences behind somebody, etc – but it’s also stuff that can still also work wonders if in the right hands, and the Keeling brothers certainly seem to be the right hands, pacing and staging the scenes expertly, helped by the eerie musical scoring from Nathan Matthew David and Jeremy Lamb, without feeling the need to make the viewer jump out of his or her seat every ten minutes like so many modern horror filmmakers seem to think is what it’s all about. Rather, you’ll probably feel chills going through your body and be constantly on edge.
An unsettling shower scene is one of the best we’ve seen in ages [put it this way, Alfred Hitchcock won’t be ashamed], though I feel that the film would have worked even better with less shots of a ghostly shadow and most definitely would have worked better without one shot, which looks like CGI, of a thing in a corner. I wish that the film had the courage of its convictions and not really shown anything tangible at all, though those bits I described are still quite effective so it’s not a big deal. Unfortunately, The House On Pine Street does fall a little bit into the trap that some recent horrors [Insidious, cough cough] tend to do, of working up all these scares to a peak around two thirds of the way through, but then realising that the film can’t really get any more fearful, so things stall a bit. It’s only a minor problem with this particular movie though, and it works pretty well all the way to its conclusion, which actually throws up more questions than answers, but this is actually quite a refreshing change. What makes the supernatural both so appealing and so frightening is that by definition it can’t actually be explained. The Keelings and their co-writer Natalie Jones throw us little clues but nothing concrete, and I was rather glad that their film left me something to chew on after it had finished.
Of course the main suggestion is that the heroine, who could just be struggling with being pregnant, could be imagining it all, though this jars with a few moments near the end , and there is the odd inconsistency here and there [like who sees the ghosts and who doesn’t]. Sometimes conventions are tweaked a little, like the supposed expert on the supernatural Walter Vance who proves to be nothing of the kind, while the film isn’t afraid to throw in little details which don’t really affect the plot but add to the uneasy atmosphere, in particular when Jennifer visits a neighbour who tells her of how her daughters couldn’t speak for years but one day out of the blue suddenly started talking again. The frought relationship between Jennifer and her mother adds another interesting dimension and could have actually been developed but, again, we’re meant to guess details for ourselves. Another thing I really liked was how we feel some of Luke’s frustration with his possibly insane wife, especially when we learn of the reason for the couple having to move in the first place. While perhaps the screenplay, in the end, perhaps raises a few too many questions for its own good, it’s quite well put together and its psychological dimension helps it become almost as disturbing a portrait of disturbed motherhood as The Babadook.
Despite not having a sizeable budget to play with, the Keelings have given us a decent looking film with some very expertly composed shots and nice use of colour, especially green, which seems to be a theme throughout. While their direction is generally quite unobtrusive, there are a few interesting pieces of editing when different shots of Jennifer’s face are cut together, showing how she feels. Emily Goss could be a future star with her extremely acute and vulnerable performance, and all the cast seem to be well chosen with only Natalie Pelligrini as Jennifer’s best friend really letting the side down. Though there is room for improvement in a few areas, and I could really have done without things like Vance’s rather heavy handed final scene, what the Keelings and company have pulled off with The House On Pine Street is very commendable. It seems to manage the difficult task of being both simple and complex at the same time, and certainly put the frighteners on me, which is the main thing really. It’s after viewing a film like this that the horror fan is prone to changing his or her mind and say that, actually, the future of the genre is bright after all.