Sunday 22 February 2015
The House of Him
Writer: Robert Florence
Producer: Joanne Daly
Cast: Richard Rankin, Louise Stewart, Kirsty Strain
Year of release: 2014
Reviewed from: online screener
The House of Him is probably the best horror film you will see all year. A blistering combination of psychological, supernatural, social and violent horror motifs which not only works brilliantly but which constantly transcends itself to become more than you think it can be. Time and again, writer-director Robert Florence trips us up with something unexpected that makes us recontextualise all we have seen and heard so far. But The House of Him isn’t clever for its own sake, and it’s not just some continually unfolding mystery. This is a powerful, serious, thought-provoking film which really uses the horror genre in a way that few films do. Most horror movies play with the genre: its tropes and its themes and its iconography. But not The House of Him.
There are no easy answers here. This is a difficult film. There are a lot of answers certainly, but none of them are easy and most of them contradict at least some of the other answers. You will come away from this film with a head full of thoughts and doubts and imagery and concerns. This film will change you, at least in the short term. It will upset you, it will confuse you, it will frighten you. It will kneel on your chest and stroke your hair and tell you everything is alright in a voice that you don’t want to either trust or believe.
Fuck the Academy Awards. Fuck Hollywood. Fuck the so-called ‘British film industry’ with its funding aparatchiks and luvvy-darling poseurs. Fuck the British Film Institute. Fuck Empire magazine and the press releases it calls features. Fuck the Baftas. Fuck everyone on Wardour Street. Fuck Netflix and LoveFilm and HMV. Fuck the Odeon and the Vue and the Showcase. Fuck the whole lot of them as they suck each other’s cocks and pretend they matter. Fuck the sheep who pay to see that shit and read about that shit and enjoy that shit. If you want to see real film-making, as raw and important and potentially life-changing as the first time you heard a single by the Clash, or realising there was one newsagent in your home town that stocked a comic called Viz, or Alexei Sayle throwing chairs at hecklers in the original Comedy Store at Raymond’s Revue Bar – if you want that sort of experience, then you need to watch The House of Him and other films like this. Give your Oscars and your Baftas to Robert Florence and Richard Rankin and Louise Stewart. Turn the world upside-down. Change your values. Change other people’s values. It will never happen, and it’s precisely because it will never happen that it should happen.
That’s what we’re dealing with.
At this point, I should probably calm down and describe the film, though it’s not easy because this is several films in one. At first, it appears to be a simple slasher movie, the opening scene giving us a glimpse of bloody, sharp violence as a masked man stabs a woman to death in a kitchen, witnessed by her friend. A single line of dialogue has already told us all we need to know about who these people are and where they are and why. The setting may be domestic but this isn’t domestic violence, and although The House of Him is on one important level a polemic against domestic abuse (positioning this film within the same subgenre as the recent The Devil’s Vice), it’s much, much more than that. It’s so much more.
Seeing her friend slain, Anna tries to effect an escape but the door is locked and all the windows are boarded up (with chipboard shelves from flatpack furniture). Croal’s pursuit of Anna through the house – the sort of bland, suburban semi that provides the setting for many of the better British horrors of recent years – resolves into a stand-off in which all the power is his. “I’m still going to kill you,” he assures her in his calm, Scottish burr. “But not right now.”
Throughout the second act, the balance of power gradually shifts, flowing back and forth but inexorably away from Croal and towards Anna. Much of this occurs through static conversations which Florence nevertheless manages to make gripping and dynamic through his (largely hand-held) camera-work. All of which leads into a nightmare-ish third act that sometimes teeters on the edge of abstract surrealism without ever toppling over. In less ambitious hands, this film could have been a simple revenge-thriller, but Florence has a grander view.
We never leave the house, but what we learn of the outside world, through a radio and occasional voices outside, suggests that something is happening globally, some form of mass hysteria turning people into crazed killers, attacking their loved ones. And for a while we think perhaps we’re watching the most blackly ironic of horror films: a woman trapped in a house with a psycho on the night when the world is suddenly full of psychos, her hopes of salvation crushed as surely as his hopes of infamy.
But, like the man in the suit says when he waves the £25,000 cheque in your face, we don’t want to give you that.
Because there is another layer to this film. This isn't the first murder committed by Croal in this house, and there are ghosts behind the walls and under the floor. Or at least, ‘ghosts’. Or maybe Ghosts. Or maybe things pretending to be ghosts, or things we would call ghosts, or maybe nothing at all. Or maybe they’re in his head. Or maybe they’re in her head. Or maybe they’re in all our heads.
A voice here, a movement there, a shadow there. Shadows really matter in this film. Florence’s lighting and camerawork (and editing) make what is in focus and out of focus, the foreground and the background and the light and the dark all part of a moving painting. Every shot is composed with a masterful hand. How literal are these ghosts? We don’t know. Does it matter? No, it does not. Just as it doesn’t matter whether the radio is telling us the truth, whether the global situation is something imagined or real or distorted. Is Croal imagining the ghosts? Is Anna imagining them? Are they imagining each other? Is this even a real house? Is there even a real outside?
Lots of questions. Questions tumbling over each other like pebbles in the surf, forming possible, potential answers just long enough for us to start to rationalise what we are seeing and hearing – before another wave sweeps it all away again.
The House of Him may be only 85 minutes long, but you need a lot more than 85 minutes set aside to watch it. The film needs to be seen in its entirety, undisturbed. Then you need to allow plenty of time afterwards to let the ideas sink in. To discuss them with the other members of the audience. Or, if you watched it alone, why not write a review, analysing what you have witnessed? Exorcise your demons. Change your values. Change other people’s values. Change other people. Throw the chairs. Buy the comic. Come out of the cupboard, you boys and girls.
Living south of the border, Robert Florence is a new name to me but apparently he is well known in Scotland as a comedy writer (sitcoms and sketches) and TV/online presenter, particularly in matters concerning video and board games. But it’s also clear that he knows and understands the horror genre, and this comes through abundantly in his debut feature, filmed in his mum’s house for £900.
Rankin and Stewart have worked with Florence on various projects as has Kirsty Strain who plays Sophie, stabbed in the opening scene. Strain was recently in Rachel Maclean’s horror short The Weepers, and Stewart was in Al Campbell’s 2011 zombie short Dead Wood. The supporting cast of voices and apparitions includes Amy E Watson who was also in a zombie short: Paul Michael Egan’s Pursuit of the Dead. That’s pretty much the extent of the players’ experience within this genre.
A magnificent achievement by all concerned, The House of Him is absolutely, exactly everything that a horror film could (and should) be. It is also solidly 21st century and, in its suburban social realism, defiantly British and hence a perfect example of everything I have been banging on about all these years. Will it be seen for what it is, or will it be a forgotten gem, perhaps discovered in years to come when nostalgia for the British horror revival makes film fans realise what they lived through and missed? All I know is that this is a stunning horror movie that you absolutely must see.
Premiering to great acclaim at the Glasgow Film Fest in February 2014, The House of Him was released to Vimeo on Demand on Halloween that year (in a tighter edit, shorn of six minutes), with 10% of profits donated to women’s aid charities. In February 2015 it was picked up for VOD distribution by the canny folks at TheHorrorShow.tv who kindly provided this screener, reinforcing their position as the go-to site for the very best in contemporary horror.
I struggled, I really did, throughout the writing of this review, over whether I should rate The House of Him as an A or an A+. I reserve the rare A rating for films that are perfect, which could not possibly be improved. The even rarer A+ is for films which seem to be perfect but actually, in defiance of all logic, go beyond that. Films which transcend themselves. I said at the top of the review that this film transcends itself, and I stand by that. And if I’m prepared to consider giving a film A+, and I can’t see any reason not to give it my highest rating, than I have to be true to my word. Bravo Robert and Richard and Louise and your colleagues. You have made one of the defining British horror movies of the modern era.
MJS rating: A+