I admit, I gave up watching Ben Wheatley’s A Field In England about half an hour in (I’ll return to it, though), but because I still wanted to watch a movie, I went with The House On Pine Street, a 2015 independent horror movie summarized as “a woman with an unwanted pregnancy moves into a haunted house”. Seemed pretty decent from that brief logline. And that’s pretty much how I would rate it.
At the beginning it feels too heavily influenced by Rosemary’s Baby –that’s not automatically a bad thing, unless the resemblances are too overt, and for me, they were. Waifish, vulnerable woman, husband who doesn’t seem to buy into her fears, interfering person (here, it’s the mother, not a neighbor). There’s even a scene where the protagonist is at an unwanted party at her own house and sits disconnected from all the people she doesn’t know. I mean, at this point it’s less of an homage than it is the mark of someone who couldn’t think of anything different to write (the screenplay is attributed to three writers, one of whom, I assume, wrote the final draft). It isn’t bad, just lazy. The entire movie as seen as one package does make amends for the sledgehammer Rosemary’s Baby similarities, but there was no need for it to move in that direction in the first place.
When you hear “haunted house”, I think your mind immediately goes to the Gothic, so when I read that summary I was expecting someone moving into a remote farmhouse (like We Are Still Here), or a rundown, Victorian-era mansion (like Crimson Peak), so I was pleasantly surprised by the choice to go with a mundane home in a typical small town, residential neighbourhood. Likely this was all to do with budget constraints, but I liked it regardless. It added authenticity, and on a personal note, I much prefer the idea of horror lurking beneath the familiar. If you’re of a similar mind and haven’t read Ramsey Campbell’s short fiction, I can’t recommend it enough. Other than the absurdly long walk to the street, and the odd choice of shrubbery along the front path, there’s nothing particularly creepy or unsettling about the place, another good choice. It’s just a house. Even inside, there are no bizarre angles or twisty staircases and hallways. I’ve been in a number of American homes of that era, and I do love those that have interesting floorplans – but this house is pretty vanilla. In some respects, it reminds me of my own, 1920s Craftsman style. I liked that the house itself wasn’t a “character” here.
Another good thing about the movie is that it doesn’t take long for the paranormal activity to begin, though it’s slightly disappointing that when it does, it’s the same old tropes we see again and again; doors that open by themselves, shadows glimpsed under a door, items moved from where you just left them. In short, there’s nothing here you haven’t seen before in countless other movies. But while there aren’t many innovative story choices here, they’re done well enough so that it doesn’t just feel like the typical PG-13 non-thinking garbage; the protagonist has a good sense of sadness and vulnerability built in, so that there’s enough audience empathy there to care what’s happening to her, not just what’s happening, and that’s a key difference from many so-called horror movies that are too heavily plot-driven. This movie mostly accomplishes a good balance between plot- and character-driven stories.
The story itself unspools okay. It isn’t a quick rush to find out the mystery of the house, nor is it a plodding character study, it’s somewhere in between. Yet, where it’s decently enough plotted, I found the supporting characters to be well underwritten. There’s a lot of tension between the protagonist and her interfering mother, but not enough backstory to feel that depth. There’s no real sense of chemistry between the protagonist and her husband, so that when they have their together scenes, they feel static, which could be the choice of actors, but I feel is more because of weak writing. There’s a character, described by another as a “medium” who shows up three times, and seems to change each time, as if the writers couldn’t really pin down what his involvement should be – which culminates in one scene which is almost total exposition – more lazy writing.
But while the movie starts off as a slow burn, the paranormal activity in the end becomes too much for this kind of small story. I didn’t really need to see people being tossed in the air, or dark shadowy arms coming around basement corners. Those just seem as if they were plucked from other movies simply because this is a haunted house movie, as though the writers had a checklist on hand while writing. In hindsight, I would have been okay with these tropes too, if not for the expository scene I just mentioned. When the reason is put forward for the activity, it feels shoehorned in and yes, it might not be the reason everything is happening, but if it is, certain elements and visuals are misleading, and if it isn’t there’s no satisfying reason for them to happen at all.
There’s a very brief subplot featuring a neighbor that initially made me think it had some bearing on the plot, but it doesn’t in any way. It makes for a nicely weird few minutes, but since it’s completely disconnected from the plot, and plays no metaphorical or allegorical role in the story, I fail to see why it was included.
Ultimately, it’s a step up from your average haunted house story, but a real lack of focus in certain key elements would have made for a much tighter plot, and effective all-round movie.