DEATH HOUSE: Derivative & Uninspired Horror
Despite a premise which would beckon horror fans and cinephiles alike, Death House doesn't deliver. Its many references and horror icons don't contribute much to a story that is far too caught up in itself to be any fun.
Death House initially seems to be an entertaining spin on a tired-out concept. It takes the self-aware concept of a film like The Cabin in the Woods, adds some virtual reality, throws in heaps of gratuitous blood and gore, and then peppers in more stars then you can shake a stick at. Marketed as “The Expendables of Horror,” it stars seemingly every living horror icon and was originally written by Gunnar Hansen, star of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Yet, despite this silly concept behind it, the film is often far too self-serious for its own good, getting caught up in its mythos for much of its length and never properly finding its footing. In the end, it will likely only be remembered as the filmic equivalent of “The Night of Too Many Stars.”
Attempted Subversive Twist on Horror Films
Death House concerns two special agents named Jae Novak (Cody Longo) and Toria Boon (Cortney Palm). The two meet up while touring a prison called “Death House,” a modern-day virtual reality shelter for hardened murderers and rapists. The prisoners, when put under with various hallucinogens, find themselves within a virtual environment resembling where they were before being imprisoned, and are then studied to discover what is it that makes them kill. While undergoing a portion of the tour, though, the power to the facility is suddenly cut off, allowing the prisoners a chance to escape and take over, and forcing the two agents to run for their lives.
Where Death House initially trips over itself is in its buildup to the central conflict itself. Instead of being an atmospheric, slow-burning thriller, director Harrison Smith instead presents a series of repetitious exchanges, in which the two agents are repeatedly told the many different methods and reasons that the prisoners are being held in virtual stasis. From one scene to the next, various suited professionals throw science-y terms at them, attempting to explain the psychosis for criminals in the first place, how social media and technology are linked to crime, and more. Basically, before even allowing itself to build organically, the film pours exposition at the door and then expects the audience to follow along with what is now a predictably laid out, predestined path.
There are a few moments of potential within these scenes, though. These include the film’s virtual simulations, which are seen when the two agents are put into the VR program and see an extravagant neon-lit world at its core. The score during these scenes by John Avarese is also fittingly very techno-thriller influenced. Notably, though, once the action sequences start to pick up, the film unfortunately moves from the virtual world to the regular one instead.
Taking a leaf out of run-for-your-life horror films like The Amityville Horror or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the film soon starts to pit the prisoners against both Novak and Book, headed by the ruthless Sieg (Kane Hodder, known for playing Jason Vorhees in several Friday the 13th films). Perhaps as a result of its lower budget, though, many of these action scenes are shot in dimly lit rooms and hallways, with the camera a whirlwind of movement, making it difficult to tell what is happening or following along with its scattered perspective.
It was curious to exclude these scenes from view, however, since the film often wants you to see just how far it is willing to go to gross you out. Some more prominent examples include shots of torn-out innards, closeups of knife penetrations, dripping blood, and, in one effective sequence, a bizarre display of barely human cannibalistic creatures, whose sight and screams are most unfoul. Indie horrors might be well-known for graphic violence, but in Death House it’s clear that the gross-out factor is mostly there to substitute for actual, inborn scares.
Blink-and-miss it cameos
Despite its flaws, what might attract you to Death House is the chance to see all your favorite horror icons in one film. And, at least on this point, the film delivers. Besides the aforementioned Hodder, it also stars Barbara Crampton, star of the 1980’s film Body Double, Dee Wallace and Michael Berryman of The Hills Have Eyes fame, Camille Keaton from I Spit on Your Grace, Sid Haig and Bill Moseley from Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects, Felissa Rose from the 1980’s cult classic Sleepaway Camp, and much more. If you’ve been keeping up with horror at all over the last 40 years, you’re likely to see at least a few people you recognize.
With such a huge cast, though, and with much of its course simply concerning the cat-and-mouse game of the two agents versus a horde of prisoners, it shouldn’t be too surprising that the film doesn’t have much room for its stars. Besides Barbara Crampton, who plays perhaps the best role of the film as one of the doctors of the facility, or Hodder, who plays the prime bad guy, there are multiple roles here that are much closer to cameos. Some icons, such as Sid Haig or Michael Berryman, have single scenes, and, in the case of Berryman, not even a word of dialogue.
Unlike The Expendables films, which had most of its stars playing an integral role, Death House is content with simply showing a cameo of a star, though this brief appearance is often not enough to be memorable.
Hodgepodge of Horror Homages
The underdeveloped roles played by the film’s horror icons also become representative of the film’s larger flaws. Besides the films already mentioned, Death House is also influenced by Halloween, Escape From New York, Saw, Rob Zombie‘s films, and even a plot thread lifted directly from Jurassic Park.
Far from pastiche, though, the film instead more closely resembles a smorgasbord of loosely-threaded homages as opposed to its own distinct entity. Like the many recognizable faces of Death House, film references run amok; but they’re only really there for a momentary glance.
Death House: Conclusion
Death House unfortunately doesn’t deliver. Its many references and horror icons don’t contribute much to a story that is far too caught up in itself to be any fun. Its graphic and lewd nature don’t much help either, and as a result, the film has few earned scares. Basically, come for the stars, but don’t expect to take anything away with you.
What are your thoughts on Death House? Are you a fan of films with multiple influences and homages?
Death House was released in U.S. cinemas on January 26th, 2018.
Opinions expressed in our articles are those of the authors and not of the Film Inquiry magazine.