This film represents my first recommendation, a movie brought to my attention by a work colleague that had experience and interest in Canadian cinema, and suggested I look at something more local for my month of seasonal reviews. The Scarehouse is a 2014 horror film that was filmed in my own academic backyard of Windsor, Ontario. My interest was of course, piqued. A movie like this might be something that I could be capable of, given hard work and time, and it seems that many of the actresses and artists involved went on to further and impressive work. With no other urging needed, I decided to enter The Scarehouse.
A frame and time stamp pop up on a black screen as the film begins, and I am initially afraid that I'm watching another found footage movie. The Gallows did a number on me. No? It's a little hard to follow with somewhat erratic editing, but the opening of the film seems to be clips of a home video interspersed with shots of two girls pulling together some kind of sorority-funded haunted house. This film has such a jumbled timeline and muddled dialogue that information is very sparingly provided. This movie is a puzzle from start to end, and someone's been hiding pieces. Initially, I believed that the narrative was following a gaggle of sorority girls as they prepared for a night on the town, interspersed with a few of their friends preparing the haunted house that they would be visiting. It's hard to gather any information from these early scenes, given that my brain just sort of tunes out into white noise whenever I'm watching a movie scene feaeturing numerous “gals” nattering meaninglessly at each other in that way that I'm pretty sure only exists on screen. Granted, I have never been privy to many sexy sorority shenanigans, so my sample pool for this sort of thing is very small.
We get our titles, and cut to two of the girls from the aforementioned shenanigans prepping the last details of their haunted house, complete with automated pop up scares, strobe lights and spooky mirror halls. These two are Corey and Elania, two girls I remember from the home movie shots. They take shots from a hip flask and mess with the initial guests that wander through, before retiring to the command center of their haunt.
While the standard line up of guests wander through the main entrance, there is also a secondary, exclusive door for VIP guests, under a monitor marked “Slut Cam”. Cute. The first of said sluts arrive, a girl named Emily wearing a sweater she looks like she borrowed from Chris Christie. Corey and Elania flash each other a mischievous grin and let her in. Emily has only a few seconds to wander into a strobe lit hallway before one of the girls throws a bag over her head.
By the time the bag comes off, Emily is tied up by the wrists and the duo of pranksters are standing before her wearing hoods and long cloaks. They begin to strip and beat her and good lord, this movie took a turn. At first I thought this was some sort of hazing ritual, but this seems like actual revenge as Elania mentions letters that she sent to Emily and Corey just sort of vamps in the background while swishing her cloak. They strip the rest of her top off and wriggle her into a corset, all while deriding her desire to be thin. Are they getting revenge on her for fat shaming them?
I know that this review isn't being very up front with plot relevant information or over arching themes, but that's mainly because the pacing and storyline is such a mess, I feel the need to pull you into my perspective; trying to figure out what the heck is going on and who the hell all these characters are on a blow for blow basis. Anyways, the girls decide to play truth or dare with a tearful Emily, tightening the corset more and more every time she refuses. And also every time she says “dare”. And also any time she says “Truth”. I get the feeling you just really wanted to girdle-torture this girl. Eventually they actually hook the strings of her corset up to an industrial winch and just squeeze her until something pops. Elainia is clearly horrified by all this and vomits right on top of congealing pool of bile seeping out from Emily's ruptures organs and oh god.....I am so sorry I wrote that.
Corey continues to be sort of “Meh” about the whole thing in that 'Bitchy Evil Girl” way that is always off puttingly artificial every time I see it. Corey finishes her off with a knife and they drag the body off.
Why did this happen? Why are we here? I sure as hell don't know. The scene in question is shocking, to be sure. Emily's confusion and the lack of sympathy from her uninformative tormentors threw me off balance, but there is so little information going into such a drawn out scene, that I don't know where to put all of this shock and revulsion. What was the point of all this? What did it show to the audience or add to the story? When you open a movie with someone being killed, it should introduce a character in a memorable way, or affect the story in some manner. This whole thing is just a scene of a woman being tortured to death. That's it.
Another girl comes in on the “Slut Cam” and the two murdering ladies bag her up too, leaving this one tied up in a room with Emily's corpse. Between the two, Elania seems to be the more hesitant to carry out what I'm assuming is a grisly night of nonspecific vengeance, but as always, Corey is entirely unsympathetic and continues to egg her on. Judging by the home movie clips that I am beginning to depressingly realize will be frequently interspersed throughout the film, these two girls are targeting their former sorority sisters. The next girl to come in is the tightly-dressed Katherine, which they jump and choke out while dressed as opera birds.
We're back in the murder room for this one, and a little more story is revealed by Kat when she wakes up chained to a board marked “Slut” and stripped to her panties. She wonders how these two girls “Got out”, revealing that they both have spent the last two years in prison. The following dialogue mainly consists of three girls all being unpleasant to each other as they hurl accusations concerning ruined lives and moral compromises at each other. It seems that there was some big crisis concerning the death of a kid named Brandon, and the rest of the sorority threw these two under the bus to save themselves.
Hey! We finally have a motivation half an hour in!
Then it's party time. Corey and Elania both accuse Katherine of being “Fake” and proceed to tear out her various enhancements, including her hair extensions, nails and false eyelashes. Again, there isn't really any greater point to all of this, it's just a roughly acted and edited scene of two women tearing bits off of a third, nearly nude woman who is strapped to an upright board...
Holy crap, I'm watching torture porn, aren't I?
A secondary wave of revulsion swept across me as I watched Corey pull out a scalpel with plans to remove Katherine's breast implants. It was not due to the fact that I was about to bear witness to a screaming girl's vivisection, but the realization that I was supposed to garner some kind of thrill out of watching it. Not necessarily the same kind of thrill one would get from watching actual porn, but the kind of adrenaline rush from watching a woman desperately reach for a screwdriver to stab the hand of the man trying to pull her through a window, or the visceral shock of watching a larval alien burst out of a man's rib cage. This was supposed to be, on some level, entertaining.
I had to pause the film and pour myself a drink. Tequila this time. It seemed appropriate.
A mutilated Katherine mocks them, stating that she happily slept with Elaina's boyfriend after she went to jail, in response to which Elania stuffs one of her own breast implants down Kat's throat, suffocating her.
Hey, you know why that torture scene is Casino Royale is so good? Because it isn't about the torture. Even though actual impact or injury is ever shown, the situation is obvious and I don't think that you need to have a pair of testicles to wince when you hear the sound of that knotted rope slapping against flesh, but the tension in the scene isn't drawn from the torture itself, that's just window dressing. The scene is about the power play between James Bond and Le Chiffre. Who will give out first? What can our hero do? There is more to the scene than just a bunch of balls hitting against a nutsack. It is a pivotal moment in the film where Bond is at his lowest, in the hands of an enemy and stripped of everything, even his clothes. All he has left is his soul, and that he refuses to give up, but it is clear that he is going to die here. But if conclusion is so forgone, why doesn't the audience loose interest? Because he's James Bond! The story so far has shown him survive countless obstacles and deadly circumstances, and we KNOW that there has to be something that he can do. That tension is what draws an audience in and makes even the darkest and most simplistic of scenes thrilling.
When I see some lady getting her tits cut off by a pair of vengeful former friends and then forced to choke on them, I don't feel anything other than slightly nauseous because I know how this is going to end. She'll die in some disgusting manner just like the girl before her and the story will move on like checking boxes on a list. There is no expectation of anything else. It's just a drawn out torture scene for it's own sake and leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
There is a brief attempt at witty dialogue by way of a gay joke, and the two girls quickly dispose of a drunken frat guy who wandered in on their pity party, locking him in a closet. There is some debate over the logistics of their little murder house, and I have a few questions of my own. How did two presumably escaped convicts, or at least paroled ex-cons, get the money and resources to rent out an entire building and create this elaborate fun house? How did they get into contact with their former sorority mates? Why would they invite a stream of people into the scare house when that seems to be BGGING for someone to wotness what you are doing? How did two people manage all of this? Why would a series of attractive women agree to come one at a time to this dingy, back alley “party” without anyone they know inviting them? That sounds incredibly risky to me. In any case, the two prepare for the next girl, with Corey showing off what seems to be some kind of electrified dildo filled with broken glass and-no. I don't want to go on.
Elaina comments that “I don't think I can watch this one” and I couldn't agree more.
So I stopped. 36 minutes into this 80 minute film I just stopped and went off to do something else. I had no reason to continue subjecting myself to this. The acting was stiff, the characters were either barely fleshed out paper dolls to be shredded up or two dimensional “Yarr, I done been spurned” vengeful psychos, the story was linear and unremarkable and I had no desire to continue watching torture scene after torture scene. I wasn't grossed out or sensibly indignant. I was just bored. I had no reason to keep watching, there was no tension to keep me hooked. No uncertainty as to what would happen next. I knew I was just going to keep watching a series of unsavory, poorly paced murders and bad line reads of a worse script until the movie ended, probably with the death of one or both of our “Protagonists”.
Do you know why I love John Carpenter's The Thing so much? Because it keeps you guessing. There is of course, the big mystery in that movie of who is human and who isn't, but even smaller moments, like where a given character's loyalties lie or what new plan the humans will think up to route out the traitor in their midst. Even when the monster shows up, it wears uncertainty like a skin. The Thing has no form of it's own, so whatever that shifting mass of flesh is going to turn into, it's going to be something you've never seen before. The disgust you feel at seeing that flashy, pulsating head sprout thin spider legs and scurry off is also fired by a desire to see what it's going to do next.
There are also a billion OTHER reasons why The Thing is my favorite horror movie, but you get the point.
The Scarehouse has no tension. It is utterly joyless and It has no point. It was not worth finishing and not worth anyone's time. In a bout of curiosity, I looked up the people responsible for this film, the director, actors and other associated artists. I am happy to say that almost all of them have gone on to do better things, working and starring in some pretty high-profile work.
For those of you who feel cheated out of a full review, I hope witnessing my slow descent into depression and surrender was enough for you. I assure you that this film has not broken me. Tomorrow's review will come, no matter what.