What the hell did I just watch?
Don't get me wrong: I actually enjoy being able to ask that question. In fact, I don't get to ask it nearly enough... and I've seen one heck of a lot of movies. After all, you only need watch a few minutes of films like Zombie Lake or Devil Story to realize what you're in for; and even movies like Jess Franco's A Virgin Among the Living Dead or Jean Rollin's The Naked Vampire, which seem to hover between art and trash, usually let you make up your mind which side you think they should fall on. It's rare for me to encounter a movie that leaves me utterly baffled. But House of Last Things has done just that. You can take that as a recommendation.
Here we have a technically well-executed, beautifully designed and intelligently-planned movie which, if you take it at face value, comes off as one of the most laughable attempts at a horror film you will ever encounter. So should we take it at face value? That's hard to say, because if we try to understand the film through its attempts at symbolism, it gets far, far worse. But if we treat it as a very sophisticated parody, well then... we might be on stronger ground. But is there really any reason to think the film-makers were anything less than straightforward?
Let's begin with the title. According to the IMDb, one of the movie's alternate titles is "The Last House". Both titles suggest that the film-makers or their marketing team weren't that conversant with horror movies: when you put the words "last" and "house" together, you're going to come up with some unavoidable associations (actually, it's worse than that: in recent years I've discovered a depressing number of "house" movies that sound from their titles like good old-fashioned haunted-house flicks, which have turned out to be drab and depressing torture fests). It's not as misleading as another movie that has just been released to DVD in early 2015: from its title, I expected Last House on Cemetery Lane to be situated on the left, on a dead-end street. But that movie turned out to be a fairly traditional ghost story, and not the spectacle of unrelenting brutality its name led me to expect. Still, when you give any nominal horror movie a title with the words "Last House" in it, chances are you're going to attract a certain audience, and that audience is going to be disappointed if they don't get what they're expecting. And they certainly aren't going to get what they're expecting here.
(Of course, if you're trying to reach an audience that isn't up on horror movies, then House of Last Things sounds more like a New York Times Bestselling Novel by a famous South American writer, such as you might find cropping up on Oprah's Book Club. But I digress.)
Let's get on to the movie itself: we start with a prologue set in the 1950's. A golfer has just botched a drive on the 8th hole of a wooded golf course; he tosses his iron in the air in frustration, and a montage suggests to us that this reaction has happened many times before on this particular hole. The golfer's partner, a man in military uniform, is having substantially more trouble making his shot, but this seems to be because he is seriously ill: blood falls from his nose and spatters the ball before he hits it. Elsewhere a man has just finished marking trees for cutting. A glance at a map reveals that the golf course is about to be torn up to make way for a housing development.
Same location, present day: on the site of that 8th hole stands a house that belongs to Alan, a classical music critic. Yes, one of our protagonists is a classical music critic — who was this movie trying to reach? The coveted "classical music critic" demographic? Not since Dario Argento made the protagonist of Inferno a musicologist, and then tragically, unforgiveably failed to kill him, has there been a more mystifying choice (sorry; Leigh McCloskey's character didn't really deserve that -- but composers and musicologists tend to have a contentious relationship).
Anyway, Alan is a music critic. Oh boy is he a music critic. When he wants to listen to Beethoven, he puts on an old Deutsche Grammophon record — vinyl, baby... kickin' it alte Schule, as Eusebius said to Florestan. Alan has been trying (unsuccessfully) to sell the house, because something happened there — something that will be revealed very gradually over the course of the movie — which caused his wife Sarah to break down and attempt suicide. Twice. Now she's coming back from the institution where she's been recovering for the past two years.
(Whatever may have happened in the house years ago, something very odd is continuing to happen there now: as he prepares for Sarah's return, Alan keeps finding golf balls, one of them stained with blood, turning up in impossible places.)
Alan has decided to surprise Sarah with an immediate, unexpected, thoroughly impractical trip to Italy, rather than have her spend her first days out of the mental hospital back in that house. Because after all, when you are looking for peace, quiet, calm and sanity, Italy's the first place you think of going... right?
Sarah's reaction to Alan's trip idea is to wonder if maybe the wrong one of them had been sent to the funny farm. Her impressions are bolstered when she meets the pretty young blonde girl, Kelly, whom Alan has hired to watch the house in their absence. Kelly shows up all a-twitter, wearing Misty Rowe-style top that reveal her midriff, and a tattoo that reads "I'M SCREWING YOUR HUSBAND!". OK, that last bit was an exaggeration; but really, there hasn't been a more ludicrous hiring of a sitter since the 2005 remake of The Amityville Horror.
Sarah takes Kelly on a tour of the house, apologizing for the state of the place. "The maid's been away for the past few months," she says wryly. Alan swears that he found Kelly through friends of theirs, but Sarah and the audience surely know better.
But if Kelly is involved with Alan, the critic is far from the only man in her life. There's also her handsome but extremely mentally-challenged brother Tim, and her bargain-basement sociopath boyfriend Jesse. Tim she invites back to the house while the owners are away, because the unworldly Tim is not safe in the wide world alone. The latter just shows up, moves in and starts drinking all the beer in the fridge.
Almost immediately, weird parallels begin to arise between the three people back in the house and the couple in Italy. For instance, when Sarah draws a bath in the evening, Kelly wakes in the morning to find the water running in the tub (and a box cutter floating there — Kelly assumes Tim has been playing irresponsibly and is furious with him). Kelly tries on Sarah's expensive clothes out of her closet, and finds to her (and our) astonishment that they fit — though Kelly is certainly more (cough) appealingly rounded than Sarah is. Delighted, Kelly insists Jesse try on Alan's dress clothes, an idea which disgusts the would-be punk. Yet when he does try them on, they fit as though they were tailored for him.
As for Alan, he discovers a pair of cleated golf shoes in his luggage which he certainly did not pack...
We're soon to find that Alan's hiding more than just a casual affair. The nature of the tragedy that unhinged Sarah also begins to get clearer — at first through strange things glimpsed by Kelly, Tim and Jesse in the house; then gradually through conversations between Alan and his increasingly-distraught wife, so far away from home. Bits of Adam and Sarah's life begin to replay themselves — sometimes as visions glimpsed by Tim, who is unable to separate dream from reality at the best of times, and sometimes in actual actions, words and phrases between Kelly and Jesse. Jesse begins to have trouble with his eyes, like Alan; and when he finds a pair of glasses in the house, they correct his eyesight perfectly. It seems as though the lives of the people who've lived in that house are becoming entwined, even across distances of time and space.
OK — so far, so good. We're about 20 minutes into the hour-and-three-quarters running time of House of Last Things, and I have to admit I was reasonably impressed. It's strange, I thought to myself: this movie is being sold as a horror film, but it really isn't. It's more of a dramatic fantasy — a mildly interesting character study with supernatural overtones. No sooner had this thought run through my brain, than House of Last Things started turning into a horror movie. We had ghostly shadows. Panicked reaction shots. Eerily-floating balloons. Spooky children appearing and disappearing in the hallway.
And everything turned to crap.
Up to this point, the emphasis had been on the peculiar but oddly credible intertwining of fates between Adam and Sarah & Kelly and Jesse. As soon as the movie started lapsing into horror clichés, any hint of credibility vanished, because 1.) the stereotypical horror elements are jarringly out of place, considering the tone the movie's tried to establish so far; and 2.) the movie still maintains that previous tone, even when the content of the movie has shifted away into horror. Thus we have "shock scenes" that are lit and blocked like scenes from a normal drama... and while there may actually be reasons for doing this, the effect is off-putting.
Let me give you an idea of some of the ways the movie goes horribly awry:
I haven't yet mentioned the opera poster that comes to life... the old woman (Michele Mariana) who seems to represent the spirit of the house, and who has some peculiar tastes in beverages... or the scene with the ghostly toilet paper. And the tattoo! Oh god, the tattoo! I guessed what was going to happen to Jesse's elaborate tattoo just before it happened, but when it did happen I still laughed myself silly.
I will say this, though: having established its more-than-slightly ridiculous setup, House of Last Things sticks with it, and carries it through as though it made all the sense in the world. The House wants what the House wants, and if it has to assemble its "Ozzie and Harriet" nuclear family out of the thinnest of raw materials, then so be it ("Mr. Dream House Builds His Blandings"). Certainly the actors play everything straight-faced. Randy Shulman and Diane Dalton are particularly effective as the duplicitous music critic and the distraught former mental patient; Blake Berris is older than he looks, but his apparent youth makes Jesse's transformation over the course of the film all the more convincing. Lindsey Haun (Kelly) even contributes a catchy song to the non-classical part of the soundtrack, while "Breaking Bad"'s RJ Mitte (Tim) does the best he can with a truly thankless role. By the last half-hour, the ensemble manages to work up some genuine tension. And the conclusion is curiously moving, if you can look past the fact that it resolves absolutely nothing. As I mentioned at the start of this review, the movie is well-mounted, thoughtfully shot and apparently completely serious in its intentions... which leads me to wonder if its absurdity is intentional.
Perhaps the movie's message is that Suburbia tends to wear down its denizens, young and old alike — lovers, artists, petty criminals, even killers — into a dismal sameness... that it takes their passion, and ambition, and inspiration, and tragedy, and turns it into farce. Well... that's hardly an original insight. But it does help to explain why the movie's symbolism is trite, why its tone is so completely lacking in atmosphere, and why even the ghosts lack the imagination to be truly scary. This interpretation is supported to a certain extent by what happens to Tim as the movie winds on, and by what Tim eventually does at the end of the picture. It certainly seems like we're being told, as the movies tell us time after time, that idiocy brings with it some kind of spiritual integrity (though that's never been the case with any idiot I've ever known, and certainly isn't the case with Tim — his grand gesture is just as ridiculous as everything else we've seen).
What the movie generally gets right is its use of classical music. OK, at one point the funeral march from Beethoven's Seventh Symphony plays while a character is squatting on the toilet — that's not so good. And it's true, the movie sort-of mixes up Verdi's "Rigoletto" and Boito's "Mefistofele". But it's dead-on in its assessment of Verdi's "Stiffelio"; and when Tim attempts to kill little Adam under a poster of Janáček's "Jenůfa" (an opera involving child-murder), that's the kind of subtlety that's missing from the rest of the story. Of course, the movie then goes on to equate classical music with 50's-vintage complacency — apple pie, motherhood and the death of the soul. It's a surprising ambivalence from a movie whose creators seem genuinely familiar with the music, and who enlisted the aid of the Naxos recording company — a company devoted to making a wide, adventurous repertoire of classical music available at a very low price — in producing the film.
But you know what? I'm going to give this movie a hearty recommendation, in spite of its problems. You may find it to be a profoundly Bad Movie, but in that case I think you'll find it's a good enough Bad Movie that you can really enjoy hating it. On the other hand, if you're willing to give the movie the benefit of the doubt and look at it as a not-entirely-successful satire, I think you'll find enough good in it to justify watching it at least once. And if you're like me, torn between the two interpretations, the movie is likely to keep you interested and arguing with yourself through repeated viewings.