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DIRECTED BY: Emma De Swaef and Marc James Roels (Part One), Niki Lindroth von Bahr (Part Two), Paloma Baeza (Part Three)
FEATURING: Voices of , , Jarvis Cocker, Susan Wakoma, Helena Bonham Carter
PLOT: Designed by an eccentric 19th-century architect, a magnificent house traps and torments a series of owners over the centuries.
COMMENTS: This unusual house has three stories. The first is classically unsettling, the second is downright creepy, and the third is charmingly hokey. Each story’s physical structure is ever-changing, as the house is built, re-built, and re-built, then is infested and decays, finally embracing its ephemeral nature. From its loftily sinister beginnings as a macro-doll’s house up through its final untethering from its foundations, the titular mansion houses three separate visions: one man’s cruel infliction of nightmarish doom; one man’s mental disintegration as he attempts to tame the decaying edifice; and one woman’s spiritual liberation. Each director provides a unique touch, but each tale fits together, creating a narrative arc that morphs into an arc of redemption.
The chronicle begins with a house within a home. A doll’s house, that is. Mabel’s immediate family has fallen from grace, and a troupe of off-putting relatives chastise them. That night, her father gets drunk and wanders angrily through the woods, only to stumble across an illuminated sedan chair, the luxurious transport housing the altogether-too-creepy architect, Van Schoonbeek (“clean stream”, one of the most subtle bits of foreshadowing I’ve seen), who promises Mabel’s family a beautiful new place to live. But as is so often the case, midnight rendezvous with giggling fatcats lead to terror and lamentation.
The House dodges the bullet typical of anthology films in that, unlike the physical structure, none of the sections are weak. Their tenor differs, as well as their style. The first features unnerving felt-made people, the latter two anthropomorphic animals. The dark shadows of Mabel’s section become marvelously lit, and tackily modern, in the second segment. An unnamed “Developer” (perfectly voiced by Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker as an at-his-wits’-end handy-rat; he also provides the closing credit’s song) begins falling part as he repairs the now-dilapidated house in the hopes of selling it off. Fate is as unkind to him as it was to the first owners—albeit with a modern twist. Part two climaxes with an intricately choreographed club-jazz dance of fabric beetles and a run-in with the law after the Developer’s dentist, sick of being telephoned at all hours and called “sweet-heart” and “dear,” sends the police around to the hapless rat realtor.
The House breaks no new ground, and much of the spook-or-creep factor relies on old fashioned methods: light-play, musical cues, background laughter, scuttles, wriggles, and poofs of poison. But it all works more than well enough. I was not unpleasantly transported in mind to that special place I can end up when emerging from a well-crafted film experience. It is worth noting the third segment, which differs sharply from the first two. It’s the story of the final owner, and of her desire for her home clashing with a subconscious itch for freedom. Helena Bonham Carter’s hippy cat performance is relief-through-whimsy (she pays rent with potent crystals), and she is the perfect guide for the frazzled young owner. The House‘s first two acts scrabble in the darker corners of the mind, but when the sun breaks through the finale’s mists, I could feel the haunting memories begin to recede.
The House is exclusive to Netflix.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…a consistent anthology, in that it’s always just about the same level of surreal, playful, sadistic, and entertaining. Across its different styles and species, The House never holds the audience’s hand when it comes to the poetic flourishes from its mighty gradual pacing; it prefers to be odd…” -Nick Allen, RogerEbert.com (contemporaneous)