Family Frights and Perils, Second Story!
By Kristin Battestella
It's time for another round of families under siege as these recent chillers use ghosts, zombies, technology, and suspicious real estate to terrorize one and all.
Hidden – Andrea Riseborough (W.E.) and Alexander Skarsgard (True Blood) star in this 2015 parable from The Duffer Brothers (Stranger Things) beginning with dialogue in the dark before a single flame reveals a stark bunker with metal beds and a green, fall out patina. A doll, one vintage board game, a deck of cards, and a handmade periscope with distorted mirror glances of their chained closed manhole and the debris outside placate the daughter inside amid whispers of what's above and the family rules – never open the door, don't talk loud, and they must not lose control. Candles, canned food, and carving the days into the wall for math lessons reflect the functioning but frazzled underground routine. How do you raise a child in a bomb shelter? It's a miracle they have survived together this long, but they are losing weight, rats are in the food, and water is precious. After fires inside and materials lost, can they risk going to the surface? Some of the bonding time with positive Dad is somewhat saccharin, but Mom doubts this can be a home and not a prison, creating tension as they both assure their daughter comes first no matter what the cost. Fade ins mirror the darkness and suggest the passage of time while past details come as memories triggered by the current smoke and surface rumblings – outbreak flashbacks giving enough information to accent forward momentum rather than lingering long or coming as in your face dream flashes. Footsteps echoing above, an inopportune talking doll, and glowing eyes peering in hit home the fear as the family tells themselves to hold fast amid banging sounds and screaming used to chilling effect. The desperation to surface increases with tense panoramas, hectic running, and close calls once exposed with dangerous escapes, injuries, and sacrifices. Where can they run? Dark highways and siege attacks lead to a taut revelation on what's really happening as the destruction comes full circle. While not slow or boring thanks to the sense of danger and the innate understanding of what parents won't do for their child, this is a confined play with the claustrophobia felt. The well woven narrative never keeps us too far away from the shelter for too long, remaining trapped by the environment be it inside, outside, or the truth – and lies – we tell ourselves for survival. Though there probably isn't a lot of re-watch value and today it is nearly impossible to go into a picture like this cold, this is a bleak and emotional surprise.
House Hunting – A low priced, seventy acre foreclosure is too good to be true for two families in this 2013 mind bender starring Marc Singer (The Beastmaster). Rather than a scenic credits montage, the obligatory drive to the horrors is a claustrophobic car conversation between a young wife and the unheard step-daughter. Shrewd editing places the divided family each in their own frame, and our second trio also argues over a teen son on crutches and a grumpy dad rightfully asking what the catch is on this dream property with automated sales pitches in every room. Surprise accidents, hidden guns, tongues cut out, crazy people on the road, and disappearing figures in the woods pack seven different characters into the SUV, but all the country drives lead back to this house. What choice do they have but to stay inside by the ready fireplace? Flashlights, hooded shadows in the corners, just enough canned food for all – the families stick together in one room but cigarette smoking, hooting owls outside, and chills in the air add tense while a bloody ax and a straight razor foreshadow worse. The men take watches but one women wants to get to work on Monday while the other is almost happy to be there and clean the house. Can they wait for help to arrive? Instead of any transition, the screen simply moves to “One Month Later” with piled cans, smelly clothes, and nobody sleeping. Household papers reveal those responsible for the foreclosure are closer than they think, but they're trapped in this routine, strained by violent visions and hazy apparitions. Is it really ghosts or cabin fever? If one family stays, will the house let the others leave? Finger pointing, blame, and distrust mount amid suicides and new assaults. Of course, the metaphors on being trapped by one's own consequences and reliving past mistakes aren't super deep and the atmosphere falls apart in real world logic. Why does no one do what the real estate recordings say? Have they no pen or paper to recount events? Why don't they hunt for more food? This is a little weird with some trite points, unexplained red herrings, and an unclear frame – problems from a lone writer/director with no secondary eye to see the personal family connections through without changing the rules for the finale. Fortunately, the supernatural elements aren't flashy, in your face shocks, and the plain fade ins mirror the monotony, freeing the eerie to develop with meta jigsaw puzzles, doppelgangers, us versus them threats, injuries, and standoffs. Are they getting what they deserve? Will the house let them apologize and escape? The clues are there, but selfish bitterness and vengeance prevent one and all from seeing the answers. While slow for those expecting a formulaic slasher, this festival find remains unusual and thought provoking.
I.T. – Stock reports, public trading, jet setting apps, tech jargon, and mod homes spell doom for Pierce Brosnan (Goldeneye) and his modern family in this 2016 thriller. Mom Anna Friel (Timeline) wants everyone to have breakfast, their daughter in a stars and stripes bikini wants faster wi-fi, and self-made dad can't work the coffee machine, but the open, glass designs give buildings both personal and professional a Matrix style interface amid graphics or text messages onscreen and tricked out cars. We are accustomed to this technology, however, with screens on the wall and motion lights more relatable compared to expensive closets, high rise corporate meetings, big investors, and private aviation plans. Dad wants to move into the future but likes his privacy, and interesting conversations on technology, privacy, and opinion or what we must give or give away to obtain each are too brief. In the nineties when computer technology was emerging en masse, this kind of cyber thriller was common, and the green lightning, New Wave pop, and nightclub den contrasts the bright, streamline high society tech – mirroring the have and have not divide. Of course, the cliché hipster tech guy says all the right things, stalking and worming his way into this family unaware he is not included but just there to fix the internet. His crying over this misinterpreted social cue is a hammy excuse to tap into their cameras, and the parents of a seventeen year old girl are right to set boundaries on a creepy twenty-eight year old man – but how do you draw the line when one can infiltrate your home? Unfortunately, between the emo weak and solo rave fist pumping, the crazy enemy plotting is totally unnecessary. It would be much more frightening if the elite man had to sweat over his family, home, and business without knowing where this tech threat originates. Sprinklers on in the night, music blaring, and lights flashing come amid doctored paperwork, trade investigations, hefty aircraft hacks, and compromised medical records. It's impossible today to stop using computers or cell phones, and the played police disbelieve our family because the evidence is their own devices. Old school calling the cleaners, reducing physical footprints, and stealing thumb drives become an undercover race to erase, but the going off the grid response ultimately runs out of steam. This premise should be disturbingly timely, however contrived conveniences have authorities never looking at the jump drive evidence or following up at the family home – not to mention that saucy teen shower video filmed and distributed without the minor's consent is completely forgotten. The stormy, slow motion final standoff resorts to a hokey mano y mano physical confrontation rather than a shrewd tech answer, playing its hand early and falling apart instead of providing the audience with any real fear of subversive technology.
Skip the Basement!
The Open House – My husband watched this 2018 Netflix Original one morning without me and spent the rest of the day complaining about it. Who was the guy? Was he in the house the whole time? Why did the trailer play at something supernatural? What was the point of the crazy lady? What a stinky ending! Suffice to say he summed it all as thus: “I want my hour and a half back.” ¯\_(ツ)_/¯