Over the course of centuries, a strange house built by a malicious architect entangles its various residents in a series of nightmares: a family, among them observant daughter Mabel (Mia Goth), who become caught up in their own material obsession; an unnamed rat (Jarvis Cocker), whose redevelopment project is hamstrung by his own delusions and desperation, as well as a bizarre couple who refuse to leave the premises; and Rosa (Susan Wokoma), whose desire to complete an idealistic project is leaving her unknowingly mired.
This three-part anthology from a number of directors and animators debuted last Friday on Netflix, and provides a unique continuation to the world of film for NFB in 2022. A series of different animation styles, with puppets matched with claymation matched with a bit of CGI, marks this one out, along with its macabre tone. It’s horror, but the kind of philosophically inclined existential horror that is probably more likely to worm its way into your brain and stay there for a while, even if you weren’t totally in love with the material. It suffices to say that The House certainly leaves an impression, but is so obvious with its subtext that it can probably drop the first three letters in that word. It’s this that hobbles it, and prevents it from joining other examples of dark animation on a higher cinematic tier.
Let’s take the three parts separately. The first, “And heard within, a lie is spun”, is a decent introduction to what The House wants to say, presenting a sort-of baroque horror that wouldn’t be out of place in the mouth of Poe. The family, or at least father Raymond (Matthew Goode) and mother Penelope (Claudie Blakley) find themselves all too easily seduced by a maniacal architect, and then seduced by the things that he offers, whether it is a fancy fireplace or a nice sewing machine. This short does a decent job in terms of creating a sense of disquiet and dread right from the off, and then adding to it bit-by-bit, but its anti-consumerist message is so clear so quickly that you’ll be looking at your watch a few minutes before its sudden turn to body-horror at the conclusion. Given its length you’d appreciate a bit more from the villain of the piece too, so it has to go down as a bit of an overcooked opener.
The second part, “Then lost is truth that can’t be won”, is probably the best of the lot, with Jarvis Cocker (who also offers a song for the credits) giving an unexpectedly poignant turn as a put upon rat who is bowed down by the pressures of a modern society that has no time for his hopes and dreams. Nameless, he seems to represent a large swath of humanity engaged in the rat race of late stage capitalism, with predictable results. Here the overt nature of the film’s messages is still fairly obvious, but countered by elements of the fantastique – a cabaret-style interlude featuring dancing beetles is certainly a standout in that regard – and by an truly excellent portrait of plain simple despair. That the rat is perhaps not as sympathetic as he might first appear, or that his house guests’ true nature, played for the blackest of comedy, is not that hard to ascertain really, doesn’t take away from a grim, but effective, short of psychological and Kafka-esque horror.
The last segment, “Listen again and seek the sun”, is at once the most intangible – seeming to take place in some sort of post-apocalyptic landscape where rising waters have left the house isolated, despite still retaining residents – and still carrying a weakness in subtlety. This time it’s essentially a grimmer version of Up, with the main character tied to the house by her failing ambitions to restore it and make memories, not unlike Carl Frederickson being tied to his house by the weight of memories already made. The outcome is largely similar too, if perhaps a bit opaque: it has the most unsatisfying ending of the three shorts, and unfortunately this means the whole experience ends in a bit of a damp squib.
The linking thread between all three of the stories is the perils of real estate. In the first it’s giving up something more fundamentally home-like in pursuit of something grander, but colder; in the second it’s the chase to manipulate the housing market to your advantage, only to get bitten yourself; and in the third it’s attachment taken to apocalyptic levels. In line with themes of obsession, despair and materialism, the creators pretty clearly want us to consider the damaging effect that the search for housing is having on us, and while this is admirable enough, the manner in which it is done is simply too blunt to be as effective as it could be.
The look of The House matches its stories in colour, tone and mood. The puppetry work is terrific, with a big focus on the individual principals of the pieces, over the somewhat more bar-bones backgrounds (the middle section being a bit of an exception, in terms of the rat’s refurbishments). In the first section the small faces on large heads are unusually expressive, while later the animals are created with an excellent air for the right detail in eyes and mouth. The threads are visible, and have a tangible quality to them that is undeniably affecting. One naturally thinks of Wes Anderson and his Fantastic Mr Fox and Isle Of Dogs, and The House is able to capture some of that feeling while presumably working on a much smaller budget.
It’s OK. Perhaps, since I am not a horror aficionado in any serious sense, The House is simply not meant for me. I found it a bit too blunt and obvious when it came to its metaphors and messages, and while it isn’t doing so from a position of blood-soaked butchery, its psychological efforts simply can’t have the same impact when it feels like it is being delivered via cue cards. The middle section is definitely worth checking out, but the larger project just doesn’t have the impact that it wants to have. From a visual perspective it’s certainly worth some consideration, but that’s about it. Similar ideas have been delivered better elsewhere. Not recommended.
(All images are copyright of Netflix).