Two German soldiers has taken a Norwegian soldier as prisoner, during one of the cold Scandianvian winter nights during WW2. They are thankful that they find a lonely house out in the wilderness, but the houses aren't that cozy after all.
Jan Helge Lillevik
Frederik Von Luttichau
It’s a common story component in horror films. There’s a moment of hesitation which happens when the characters encounter their first frightening or uncertain obstacle – will they make a choice to potentially endanger themselves (and thus pushing the story into action) by entering the strange and strangely convenient house on the hillside?
The question I always ask with more than a touch of facetiousness is, “What could possibly go wrong?”
If you’re asking that question, chances are – you’re watching the beginning of a horror film.
That’s certainly the case for Huset (The House for us English speakers) – a fantastic new Norwegian import from writer/director Reinert Kiil. I saw plenty of inspiration from classic horror films like The Others, The Exorcist, and even Michael Mann’s lesser-known The Keep. Kiil wanted to do an exorcism film and he wanted to do a WWII film – so when the chance came to combine the two ideas, this is the fruit of the offbeat union.
It is the closing days of WWII. Two downed German soldiers (with no connections other than their allegiance – they crashed separately) are stranded in the Norwegian countryside. They have a captive and injured Norwegian soldier. As they make their way to a possible rendezvous and rescue, it becomes obvious that they are lost – with their maps and compasses offering no assistance. Additionally, the compasses are apparently on the fritz. Hmmm… They happen upon a single “empty” house in the middle of a clearing, where they take shelter. They are able to catch their breath, warm their limbs and get a few winks of sleep. But just as you’d expect (there’s that eternal question, “What could possibly go wrong?”), the house has a deep and evil history – and the new question becomes, will the three soldiers discover the home’s secrets and will they escape them?
Another film The House seemingly draws from (Kiil says he has never seen the movie – so all the more kudos to him) is The House at the End of Time. Like that Venezuelan insta-classic from two years ago, The House messes with the time-line (and therefore your brain). I won’t say anything more which might spoil the genuine goodness of the story, but films which successfully fling you about in time (Looper and Edge of Tomorrow come to mind) are difficult to achieve and therefore a wonder to behold when they’re done right. The House does it right.
With the exception of a few supporting players in several flashbacks, the film focuses on the three soldiers. All three of these lead actors bring a proper somberness and efficiency (they’re in the military), but as the events unfold around them, and terror sets in, these facades crack and we start to see the fears and frailties of these very human beings.
As the higher ranking Kreiner, Mats Reinhardt is appropriately stern and commanding, but the script allows Reinhardt the opportunity to find the softer spots of what could easily be a Ralph Fiennes-esque character straight out of Schindler’s List. Kreiner’s tales of woe offer Reinhardt the opportunity to emote, if all too briefly. The character speaks of his interaction with a young girl in a concentration camp and he smiles as he talks of his beloved. There’s the undercurrent of regret in Kreiner’s voice and believe it or not, you’ll feel the tinglings of sympathy for this high-ranking Nazi soldier.
As the younger of the two German soldiers, Frederick von Luttichau brings a perfect blend of jumpy, trigger-happy soldier with little experience, to basically taking on the traits of a frightened young child, hoping for someone to take control and get him out of this situation. You can see that the character relies on Kreiner – in an almost father/son way, and even though he’s a trained soldier, you forgive his mental break-up because he’s so young. Luttichau brings this trigger-happy Nazi to life and makes him endearing and fragile.
It is perfect casting for the two German soldiers – with their first task to bring to life their jobs as soldiers and recognizing their respective ranks. Admittedly, I don’t know much about military life/ranks, etc. but I bought all of their interactions in those instances.
I was most impressed by the subtext and nuance of the script. Think about the additional pressure of enemies – having to watch out for one another in a dire and frightening situation – whether they want to or not. The premise alone comes with oodles of baggage, and I can tell you that there’s always an underlying sense of danger – from these two warring parties – representing their nations and their leaders. It offers so much extra in a film already brimming with suspense and unease.
The film opens with stunning birds-eye views of the vast Norwegian forest. It’s a major change once the characters reach the house, and everything becomes very intimate and closed-in, but both the epic outdoor visuals, as well as the close-up intimacy with the characters – work well. Kiil and his team have a more than firm grasp on lighting, tension-building and using the space around the characters. The film’s a technical marvel.
There are several effective “boo” moments which will no doubt have you clinching your butt-cheeks, but it’s the term (so often over-used by me) dread which holds central focus in The House. I mention this so often, because it’s actually very difficult to achieve. And for serious horror films, that undercurrent of discomfort and a lingering sense that “none of this can be good”, can’t work all the time, or all films would be either “special”, or “garbage”. The House hits this right on the nose, which makes it a special film.
A big part of that success is due to the film’s heavy dependence on the sound design. This house is set in the middle of a winter wonderland – lots of wind and lots of building creaks. Add to that the seemingly constant scratching from somewhere, the radio clicking on and off (at full blast) and doors slamming shut – and you’ve got an easy memory connection to the daddy of all “sound-dependent” (I’m copyrighting that phrase) horror films, Robert Wise’s The Haunting. There’s also a similarity to The Haunting, because you don’t see too terribly much. You get some terrifying shapes, but the film is really about the encroaching helplessness, the characters themselves and the creaks and groans of a very lonely house.
With terrific performances, atmosphere for days and folks behind the camera who know how to play you, The House is destined for – as I termed above for The House at the End of Time – “insta-classic” status.
The House is enjoying its festival run, but has already secured some distribution in Europe. Stay tuned for information on the US release – when you’ll be given the go-ahead to come knocking on this particular house’s door.
But then again, based on the horror this film reveals to be behind that door – I’m not sure you’ll leave the experience completely unscathed – but it is horror, so we’re not supposed to walk out all sunny and bright, are we?
Huset (The House) is definitely highly recommended!