Watching From A House On Willow Street last night, I was reminded of The Atticus institute in a number of ways, but what went through my mind was not so much the end result, but of the premise itself, and how the filmmakers completely failed to exploit it. In The Atticus Institute, the premise is: what if demonic possession was a real thing, and could it be weaponized? Of course, that’s not what the actual movie was about, but to me the real story should have been that laid out in the premise. In From A House On Willow Street, the premise actually is the actual plot, but it’s handled badly: a group of would-be kidnappers abduct the adult daughter of a wealthy family, only to discover that she is possessed by a demon. Ransom meets The Exorcist.
One thing I really like is when filmmakers mash up genres. In this day and age where success pretty much only breeds homogenization and replication across all media, creative fusions can be successful – but at least there are points available for trying. The key to a successful mash up is down to two crucial elements, though – one is balance. The movie has to have a reasonably equitable blend of the fused genres. If there’s too much of one, it feels lacking and uncommitted, but when there’s a strong mix of both, it leads to such movies as Shaun of the Dead, Predator, Galaxy Quest, and What We Do In The Shadows – I would even put James Gunn’s Super in there too. The other main ingredient there too is the most obvious one: it still has to be executed well. There are many, many unproduced screenplays with a starting point of it’s this movie meets that movie, but then the writers fail to actually write a good script, as if the hard work has somehow already been done. Listen, it’s hard enough to write a movie that stands with both feet in one genre- it’s even harder to write a movie that crosses genres, and services both of them well. From A House On Willow Street is in the latter category.
Written by Catherine Blackman, Jonathan Jordaan, and Alastair Orr, directed by Orr, and starring a cast of relatively unknown actors, the best things I can say about the movie are on the technical side. The movie is well shot; the cinematography and production design are both good for this kind of budget, and the acting is decent enough – Orr does a good enough job with the actors involved and seems to have kept a tight rein on things from that side of the job, but the problem is the script itself, and how certain plot developments force CGI to come into play just after the midway point. I’d argue that up to that point, the movie makes a decent attempt to try to fulfill the potential of the premise, but does so in a mostly by the numbers way. It’s a shame, because from the outset, the script does an okay job in introducing the main characters, and does so in a way that implies backstory for most of them. When their plan is executed, the scene where they go to the large mansion to abduct the target is handled well. Things begin to go wrong when they return with their abductee, though, both in terms of actual story, but crucially, in the actual nuts and bolts of the plot points too.
Wisely, the story sticks to mostly using the creepy, abandoned factory setting, and even when a couple of the kidnappers return to the scene of the crime to find out why there’s no answer to their attempt to call for ransom (normally, this kind of circular plotting drives me up the wall, but it works okay here), the tension is ratcheted up considerably, but then we go through a couple of scenes that start to feel a little bit familiar, and there are signs that the plot is about to go off the rails.
I wasn’t really convinced by the performance of Carlyn Burchell, who plays the possessed Katherine. I can’t put my finger on it exactly, but she isn’t served well by the writing, that’s for sure. When first introduced, she looks and acts a lot like druggie daughter of a well off family, without any real sense that something much worse is going on behind her bloodshot eyes. Even when she’s taken back to the hideout and she offers up some vague threats, there’s not really much of anything going on in those first few scenes. When she begins to exhibit signs of demonic possession, though, it comes less like Regan from The Exorcist, and more like the kind of possession from the ill-conceived Evil Dead remake of a couple of years ago, but much more restrained. It left me unconvinced, and gave me a real sense that the writers didn’t approach this with a fully formed concept.
What cemented this opinion was the sudden introduction of CGI, and supernatural super powers into the plot. Now look, there’s no playbook on how to do a movie about demonic possession, but you can’t go wrong in trying to create a demonic personality that is so different, so alien, so evil that we, the audience, can only relate to it in the context of the story. The possessed Katherine just feels like a comic book villain, not something that fought up through to our reality to do bad stuff. When Orr lays on the Kubrick Stare, he’s paying fanservice to the movies of other people, and I need a lot more than that to be convinced that someone is being inhabited by real evil.
To make matters worse, the story quickly devolves into a series of scenes where Possessed-Katherine decides to exercise her powers that suddenly involve growing a CGI-produced evil tongue to, I dunno, infect other people with Evil, raise them up with the power of her mind, and stop bullets in mid air like Neo from The Matrix. Taken separately, none of these elements are particularly bad, but combined, it’s way, waaaay too much, and it made me wonder: if she can do all these things why did she allow herself to get kidnapped in the first place? Not only does it unbalance the premise, it begins to feel less like an honest horror movie than it does a showcase for specific plot points – in other words, “Hey look at me doing something different!” It’s like being cool – if you have to tell people you’re cool, you’re not cool. The visuals completely overshadow the story at this point, and the remaining fifteen or so minutes of Act 3 mostly collapse in a series of scenes that bolt one supernatural power on to the other in a phony way of upping the ante, sometimes at the expense of common sense: one of the main goals of the protagonist, Hazel (played well by Sharni Vinson) is to grab a giant wrench to protect herself/kill Possessed-Katherine. I’ve hefted one of those pipe wrenches, and they are heavy. So, when you bring one of those things down, hard, on someone’s head multiple times, there’s not going to be much head left – but in the movie, there’s no discernible damage done. Logic works in movies EVERY time. In the script development stage, there are certain things you have to work out, so that your story doesn’t feel contrived, and logic will always come up with a way to make your idea better. Good example: look at the horror movie dummies that go into their basement when you know they shouldn’t. Give them a reason as to why going into the basement is the only possible choice they have. When Hazel picks up that industrial strength pipe wrench, have her use it to inflict the kind of damage we all know it’s capable of, or don’t have her actually be able to use it. Small quibbles, you might think, but not really.
I started off the review by talking about successful genre fusions – at no time does From A House On Willow Street ever come close to joining that small, exclusive club, but the potential was there from the start.
© Andrew Hope 2017