HOUSE OF SALEM (2016)
Written and Directed by James Crow
A young boy named Josh is kidnapped from his bedroom by a group of masked criminals and taken to a safe house where he’s to be held hostage for their client in exchange for ransom money. When there’s no contact from Josh’s guardians regarding the ransom, the kidnappers become suspicious about the job just as dark secrets of their assignment, the house and its past reveal themselves.
HOUSE OF SALEM is writer/director James Crow’s second feature, an independent British horror that once again uses child actors to make the terror really hit home. Liam Kelly sparkles in his debut role as timid Josh, a boy who’s never without his comfort toy, a stuffed lamb named Saint Peter. Home tutored and regarded as special, we see that Josh struggles with horrific visions and sinister nightmares, so much so that he has to be drugged in order to sleep well without disturbance. However, it seems his visions have more of a grounding in reality than he’d like as he anticipates the kidnapping and the horror yet to come.
Les Mills, also in his debut feature film, stars as the stony-faced, cool-as-a-cucumber criminal ringleader Jacob, heading up a team consisting of adoptive daughter Nancy (Jessica Arterton), young ruffian Jack (Jack Brett Anderson), wild Micky (Robert Lowe) and experienced Craig (Dean Maskell). After kidnapping Josh, they plan to lay low at the client’s manor hidden away in the countryside until the ransom is paid. What sounds like a simple job soon heads south when the guys begin to see and hear weird things in the house whilst Nancy discovers Josh knows some particular truths about her past that only Jacob has ever previously known. Concerned that something isn’t right in the house, Jack decides to do some digging around in the basement and makes a discovery that reveals the true nature of their contract.
James Crow has done it again. Blending locational atmosphere with a strong use of characters to tell his story, Crow slowly builds an unease into the viewer as we discover, alongside the characters, just what the hell is going on. Josh’s interactions with his lamb St. Peter hint at terrible things in the past, present and future and the viewer wonders just how hellish this scenario can get. Voices from cupboards, an invisible presence pulling on Josh’s chained legs and weird eye-shaped markings around the house all help to build the tension and set up the reveal. With the backstory of Josh’s parents, we know something ain’t right but how far does the secrets stretch and what do they want with young Josh?
After thoroughly enjoying Curse of the Witching Tree, it’s great to see another spooky slice of cinema from one of the UK’s brightest, original cinematic creators. Smartly using strategic camera angles and cuts to get the reaction desired without resorting to graphic scenes, be it for budget/effects restraints or for a desire to hit a younger audience than a certificate 18 would warrant, makes HOUSE OF SALEM an admirable one in terms of filmmaking. The terror angle feels as though it could have been turned up a notch to produce some really intense frightening scenes involving the outside forces, but as it stands the simmering horror elements work adequately if a little on the tamer side. The performances from all the cast are decent and believable for the most part, with some actors stronger than others, but with this film being a first for many of the leading cast, the minor hiccups in performances can be forgiven.
What I love about HOUSE OF SALEM is that it’s not afraid to take risks. It doesn’t mind being harsh when the plot needs it, even if much of the horror is off-screen, and anyone, adult or child, is fair game. We really see this towards the back end of the movie as everything begins to go pear-shaped for Jacob’s crew and young Josh. In some of these parts, the film feels a little rushed and I feel it would have benefitted from spending time with these scenes, allowing the characters to chew on the scenery and really ramp up the tension, fear and anxiety of the characters involved. As a result, it’s not as scary as I was hoping it would be though the chiller elements are most definitely there. The intriguing storyline combined with the characters and setting all add up to a charming indie horror that prefers to scare using drama rather than buckets of blood. Think of quirky Brit cinema like Wake Wood, combined with the child-orientated angle of The Others, and you have the idea of the type of horror Crow’s film is going for.
HOUSE OF SALEM is an unsettling experience with a twist of British classic horror. James Crow has proven he’s got the skills to deliver a story on-screen and is most definitely a director to keep watch of.