After a young woman is kidnapped, her captors soon come to realize that in fact they may be the ones in danger and this young woman has a dark secret inside her.
March 24, 2017
Catherine Blackman, Jonathan Jordaan
Carlyn Burchell as Katherine
Gustav Gerdener as James
Zino Ventura Zino Ventura as Mark
Sharni Vinson as Hazel
Truly great genre filmmaking is not as respected as it should be. First and foremost, there has to be a mastery of form, and then it can be subverted. Nine times out of ten, the heavily marketed fare is enjoyed by outsiders, all of whom boast an acumen for horror while possessing none. An idea may not be as original as you think it is, or as polished as it could’ve been, had there been a greater respect for the genre. But for the aficionados, there is House on Willow Street.
Also known as From a House on Willow Street, the latest distribution from IFC Midnight. The story is essentially a hybrid “kidnapping/possession” movie. Think Ransom (1996) meets Satan. After a young woman named Katherine, (Carlyn Burchell), is kidnapped, her captors soon realize they are in fact the ones in danger. This ragtag group of criminals are mainly in it for the money, except for Hazel, (Sharni Vinson), who has a rather mysterious tie to Katherine’s family. For Hazel, it’s a personal vendetta. She is supported by her loyal boyfriend Ade, (Steven John Ward, who unfortunately can’t quite get the hang of an American accent).
If there is one tangible reason to see this movie, it’s the special effects, in particular, the makeup. Except for the ending, most of it is practical blood and gore, (i.e. created in the real world and not a computer). The demonic possession makeup, in particular, helps chart the internal logic of the supernatural elements. When the criminals first kidnap Katherine, she only has bloodshot eyes and parched lips. Every scene after that adds some new element to her appearance, from yellowing skin to burned hands, so that we end up with quite the chilling creature. This coincides with the growing power of the demon inside her, whose motives I will not spoil. Needless to say, torment and domination play a big part.
House on Willow Street is a simple, straightforward story, economically told. That’s harder than it looks. Especially when what you’re looking at is impressive, considering its limited resources. Almost all of the action takes place in the titular house and an abandoned factory, with a few brief jaunts into a spooky forest. The characters don’t do anything too lamebrained, and the explanation for their separation from outside help, (always an uphill battle in horror fiction), is simple and elegant. They’re in the middle of a crime. Calling the cops is the last option available to them, until it’s too late.
The CGI is on par with the current superhero television shows on The CW. Take that as you will. No, they don’t have the “authenticity” of the practical effects. But they are kept to a minimum, mind you they’re filmed in high-contrast darkness, smoothing over a lot of the rough edges. Director Alastair Orr has made this kind of horror his bread and butter, with past films like Indigenous and Rancid. He understands exactly when and how to cut away, effectively putting the dread in the mind of the audience. Sure, he’s no Hitchcock. But who is?
My biggest complaint would be the stock characterization. Outside of the two female leads, there isn’t much depth to the secondary characters. It’s a missed opportunity since the juxtaposition between the supernatural and organized crime is such an interesting idea. We’re not given enough time to organically digest the way a criminal thug would genuinely react to the existence of a demon. That could have been ironic and funny, but it’s never ironic enough.
Sharni Vinson is strong if a bit uneven, as the empathetic Hazel. The movie takes a long time to get to her motivation for kidnapping Katherine, which is troublesome, considering the otherwise brisk pacing of House on Willow Street. We are meant to feel the gravitas of two big reveals, almost simultaneously, and they are of unequal emotional weight. Why be so coy with Hazel’s backstory? Just state it right up front, and move on. There are souls to fry.
However, whenever Vinson is in a scene with Carlyn Burchell, she shines. The two actresses compliment each other wonderfully. Both are ferocious and vulnerable in good measure. As Katherine, Burchell is burdened with a tremendously physical performance. Playing the demon possessed is no small feat, (just ask Linda Blair). Burchell rises to the challenge. I can only hope she didn’t get hurt on set, (à la Linda Blair). Steven John Ward is a bit too vanilla as the steadfast Ade. But that could very well be a flaw in the three-person penned script.
Overall, House on Willow Street will entertain and engage the supernatural horror fans. The direction is solid, save for the odd dropped frame slow motion shot. That didn’t look good in the nineties, and definitely doesn’t look good now. It is currently in limited release and VOD.