in Shocktober

The House

As we’ve sped up the normalization of releasing new movies on streaming due to these rough few years for the movie business, it has caused me to ask when a streaming release does a disservice to a movie and when it actually benefits it. Obviously, there were a couple of movies released this summer that would’ve been considerably more enjoyable to watch in a theater, but at the same time, it is hard to deny that streaming can make a weirder, less commercial film easier to discover than it otherwise would’ve been. I would say that The House falls into the latter category, since I have a hard time seeing this movie becoming the kind of sleeper hit that another stop-motion film, Marcel The Shell with Shoes On, became earlier this year. Yet on Netflix, it’s a curiosity waiting there for anyone looking for something a bit off-kilter, though it’s hard to say if you could depend on The Algorithm to actually send you its way.

The House is an anthology movie, so as is most appropriate, I’ll break up each segment into their own individual reviews:

I – And Heard Within, a Lie is Spun

This first story centers on a family living in a small home in the English countryside, seemingly sometime in the past (lets just say the Victorian era for posterity’s sake). One night, Raymond (voiced by Matthew Goode) the father of the family, stumbles off drunk into the woods after a particularly unpleasant family dinner with some much more wealthy relatives. A glowing carriage appears, and Raymond appears to have stricken some sort of deal, since a man appears the next day at their front door offering them a brand new luxurious house on a hill, all as a gift from the mysterious Mr. Van Schoonbeck. The family quickly movies into the house, which is built in a matter of days.

However, shortly after they move in, their older daughter Mabel (voiced by Shocktober MVP Mia Goth) notices strange happenings at their estate. First, the workers who have built the house seem to be working under strenuous circumstances, where they’re constantly asked to change aspects of the house that were already built or are caught in off-hand, Shining-esque acts of weirdness. Things don’t get any better when Mabel’s parents become obsessed with the interior layout of the house, with her mother perfecting the drapes and her father being fixated on the chairs and the fireplace, with them eventually going as far as to dress up like their beloved drapes and chair, and thus foreshadowing the sinister plans Van Schoonbeck seems to have for them.

Or, at least, I assume that what happens to the family is all part of this shadowy figure’s plan. Really my only problem with this first section is that it feels like it could’ve used a little more explanation of the scheme that’s afoot here. But at the same time, maybe that’s the appeal of making a shorter horror story that’s a part of an anthology — you can indulge the sense of mystery and unease without having to go into too much detail as to where it’s coming from. Of course, the biggest thing that made me unsure of whether I wanted to see The House or not was how much I’d be into the animation style, especially of this installment, which uses particularly creepy human models whose heads are large and bulbous, but the features on their faces are quite tiny and minimalist.

As unsettling as these little faces are to look at on first glance, I think they do suit the story well. There’s a very mundane kind of British normalness to their big fleshy heads, but at the same time, the disproportion of them can’t help but create this feeling that everything’s a bit off even when things seem to be going great for this family. Maybe this makes it a little too obvious when Mabel starts to see their good fortune unravel, but I think it creates exactly the vibe this short is going for. I would say the same for its ending, which is a bit disturbing, but also oddly cute at the same time.

II – Then Lost is Truth That Can’t Be Won

Of the three parts of The House, this one is probably the best. This makes sense considering it was the only segment that wasn’t directed by a first-time director in Niki Lindroth von Bahr, who directed a 2017 short called The Burden that got some attention at prestigious film festivals like Toronto and Cannes. This chapter also happens to feature the voice talents of Britpop icon Jarvis Cocker, which is one of the reasons I was interested in reviewing this movie, considering he doesn’t do a ton of acting. Speaking of which, it seems by some weird coincidence (I couldn’t track down any deeper connection) that one of Cocker’s other rare film appearances was voicing another stop-motion anthropomorph in Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mister Fox.

Here, he’s playing a rat-man real estate developer who has just renovated a house and is hoping to flip it for a decent chunk of change. We see him constantly on his blu-tooth phone talking to some unknown person about his plans to sell the house as well as the various anxieties it’s causing him. Right before the developer is about to have his showing for the house, he spots a couple of bugs crawling around the basement which he hides and then calks shut behind the walls. The developer has a hard time keeping his cool during the showing, but still sees some promise when two strangely-shaped rodents (one very stocky, and one very long) say that they are extremely interested in his house.

However, the two potential buyers never leave the house after giving the developer this crucial shred of interest, acting as if they already live there. Meanwhile, the bugs in the house become more abundant, at one point doing a whole elaborate dance routine for the developer in the attic. Things then escalate even further when the rodent couple invites their family into their “new home” and the rat-man tries to poison them in retaliation. I will say that despite this being the best of the three stories, I did find it a little unpleasant to watch just because bugs in general tend to gross me out and the fact that these ones were animated didn’t make them any less creepy or crawly. Still, the blend of irreverent strangeness and subtle satire of the real estate business really worked for me.

III – Listen Again and Seek the Sun

Ok, this review is ending up longer than I expected for such a modest little movie, but I guess that’s just what happens when you write about three movies in one. I should say that all three chapters of the film were written by Enda Walsh, so I’m not sure how much stock to put in the varying quality of these three stories and how much they relate to each story having a different director or directing team. Overall, the animation style is relatively the same, since it was all done by Nexus Studios, but there is a slightly different look in the character design, especially when comparing the lithe, very humanoid cat people in this third chapter to the almost less-human humans in part I.

In this third chapter, the cat-person we focus on is Rosa (Susan Wokoma), who owns and operates a boarding house seemingly in the middle of the sea. We find out that many of her tenants have left, while the ones she still has don’t pay rent, or have been there forever, like her hippie friend Jen (voiced by Helena Bonham Carter). And even she seems intent on moving away after meeting a swashbuckling kindred spirit who has landed at the island estate. Rosa struggles with leaving the house, even when the constant threat of flooding makes living there unsustainable, but after all of her tenants and friends have also left, she sees little choice.

This is the weakest of the three by a pretty wide margin, as it has the inklings of a good idea, with its potential commentary on the effects of rising sea levels caused by global warming, but it doesn’t really do anything with it. The characters also seem a little undercooked, which isn’t helped by the fact that there isn’t really a clear hook to this story the way there is with other ones. Still, even when the narrative isn’t there, the stop-motion animation here is charming throughout, even if it’s pretty easy for any modern stop-motion to be charming just by virtue of existing.

Though it seems that this anthology was planned before the pandemic, it can’t help but feel like a pandemic-era work considering it probes the relationships we have with our homes, which we all spent a lot more time with during lockdown than we would’ve liked. Fortunately, if you still wanna lock yourself in your home for an extended period of time, there are worthwhile oddities like The House out there on streaming that are worth letting into your living room.