09th Feb2018

‘Death House’ Review

by Philip Rogers

Stars: Cody Longo, Cortney Palm, Richard Speight Jr., Dee Wallace, Barbara Crampton, Bill Oberst Jr., Bernhard Forcher, Sean Whalen, Kane Hodder, Debbie Rochon, R.A. Mihailoff, Sid Haig, Adrienne Barbeau, Lindsay Hartley, Michael Berryman, Tony Todd, Vernon Wells, Bill Moseley, Felissa Rose, Tiffany Shepis, Camille Keaton, Tony Moran, Lloyd Kaufman, Brinke Stevens, Elissa Dowling | Written by Harrison Smith, Gunnar Hansen | Directed by Harrison Smith

death-house-poster

Death House is a secure underground government facility built to detain and monitor humanities worst on 9 levels. During an exclusive tour agents Jae Novak (Cody Longo) and Toria Boon (Cortney Palm) find themselves fighting for their lives when an internal explosion cuts off the power and releases the prisoners. Unable to escape their only option is to continue down toward the lowest depths of the facility, where a supernatural group of evil beings called the Five Evils are their only chance of survival.

There has been limited information prior to the release and for good reason. Death House is a film which you want to see without preconceptions, because it really is nothing like what you would expect. It has the accolade of bringing together the largest cast of horror icons, but Harrison Smith delivers more than just a marketing campaign of the who’s who of horror. The brilliantly clever script constantly challenges the audience and constantly asks the questions regarding the blurred line between good and evil. Everyone will come out with something different after watching the film and when you start to reflect back on the events, it makes you want to watch it all over again.

The style of the film emulates the classic feel of 80’s horror, although it owes a lot more to John Carpenter’s Escape from New York (1981) than Halloween (1978). With the films relentless pace, it seamlessly incorporates a mixture of horror, action and Sci Fi, creating a unique and unexpected experience which makes it feel so original. Death House is an intelligent horror film which looks to challenge what the audience expects from horror, offering more than just a reliance on jump scares which seem to be dominating at the box office.

Director Harrison Smith knows what the horror fans want from Death House and caters for the intended audience. Practical gore effects, memorable one liners, and some outrageous action stunts fulfill the expectations which have you sitting there either laughing or with a fixed grin across your face. There is an element of reality to the true horrors which are underlined in the film, but in the end the film is intended to entertain, offering the audience a sense of escapism in which they are invited to enjoy the ride. If you want something more grounded in reality you may want to watch a documentary.

Experiments conducted inside the facility are reminiscent of the holocaust. Life is seen as expendable and their experiments rationalised, because the evils in which they are prepared to commit are conducted in the belief they are doing is for the greater good. I won’t go into detail, but this is one of the many concepts in the script which really makes the film stand out, with the institutionalised attitudes and beliefs which have developed within the facility. I feel this is brilliantly reflected very differently with two of the characters. Bennett (Richard Speight Jr.) manages to steal his scene, with his light-hearted reflection of the work which is conducted. Whilst Dr. Eileen Fletcher (Dee Wallace) delivers a cold and often emotionally detached reflection towards society as someone who really believes what she is doing will eventually help to eradicate evil, whatever the cost.

Amongst all the action, the film does manage to build up the tension in scenes. One of my favourites involves Barbara Crampton as Dr Karen Redmane where she talks with the three of the prisoners who are deliberately held within in a room together. Bill Oberst Jr., Bernhard Forcher and Sean Whalen play off each other’s characters brilliantly with their intense and rather chilling characters, whilst Barbara mocks them in a scene where she seems to take pleasure in her domineering position of power. Barbara’s overbearing but playful performance really stood out for me as we see a change in her character, which reminded me of David Gale as Dr. Carl Hill in Re-Animator (1985).

There are some excellent performances by the cast which include the leads Cody Longo and Cortney Palm, who were perfectly cast as the federal agents Jae Novak and Toria Boon respectively. It is interesting to see how their characters evolve throughout the film as we begin to learn more about their past, and as we watch them make their way through the prison, it begins to reveal not only the strengths but also the weaknesses of their characters.

Finally seeing the Five Evils together: consisting of Bill Moseley, Michael Berryman, Vernon Wells, Vincent M Ward and Lindsay Hartley, is one of the defining moment in the film. I don’t want to give too much away but as the moment unfolds it becomes as much about the words that are said, as the questions that it raises.

It is however Kane Hodder who stands out in the film with his performance as the immortal Sieg. Casual horror fans may only recognise the name from Friday 13th or Hatchet Series, but they will definitely recognise his face following Death House. Proving less really can be more, we see an unmasked Kane who is given the opportunity to really develop the character of Sieg, which he portrays with an intense performance. His menacing stare, as ever present, seems even more intimidating without the mask. But it is the delivery of his memorable lines which really darken his character. This makes it all the more surprising when you actually sympathise with his character.

There are some brilliant practical effects used in the film, such as Debbie Rochon in action as Leatherlace, as well as some of the more unidentified characters which are uncovered. However, for me it is the scene between R.A. Mihailoff and Kane Hodder which still manages to look more impressive every time I watch it. As with many moments in the film, I would love to have seen their time on scenes extended, but we have to face the facts that extending it would have affected the flow of the film.

If I wanted anything more from the film it would have been a longer running time, as it seemed to be over too quickly which left me wanting more (so when you get to the end credit makes sure you don’t leave early). There are also several elements throughout the film which were not really explained, leaving it open to interpretation or to be explained the sequel. As with the many Easter eggs and homages throughout the film, it makes you want to watch it again to see any areas which you may have missed where there is so much going on. Either way it will help get the fans talking and I am sure there will be a few conspiracy theories soon to be circulating the internet following the release. But to avoid any spoilers, I will be keeping my opinions to myself.

The film is based on an original concept from Gunnar Hansen, where he wanted to bring together the icons of horror. But the development of the script and the story by Harrison Smith the film has come a long way and will now be remembered for so much more. Although he gave his blessing to the film, it is that unfortunate that Gunnar passed away before the film was finished, but I am sure he would have been proud of the completed film.

Death House has taken the chance at creating something original, and with some amazing performances from the cast it manages to deliver an intelligent fresh take on the genre which sets the bar for 2018. The door has been left wide open for more and with five additional sequels planned I hope the horror fans support the film, because I can’t wait to see these happen.

***** 5/5

Death House is released in cinemas (across the US) on February 23rd.

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One Response to “‘Death House’ Review”

  • Philip,

    Thank you for taking the time to watch and review Harrison Smith’s DEATH HOUSE, and for your positive reaction to the film, which was truly a labor of love. I hope fans like it as much as you did. Thank you, too, for all Nerdly.co.uk does to keep our genre strong. It is appreciated.

    Bill

    Bill Oberst Jr.
    billoberst.com