Scary houses: watching the cheap horror hiding in Tesco

Spotted those shiny boxed horror movies in your local Tesco? Craig's watched them. All of them.

There’s a certain type of horror film fan who enjoys a challenge. Perhaps they like a sense of adventure with their films. Perhaps there’s also an element of gambling. It starts small. Low odds. For example, they might buy a boxset of the Alien Quadrilogy. Four seemingly reasonable films but there’s an element of both chance and endurance. Can you sit through nearly eight hours of Alien films? And, if you can, how many of them will you like? Eventually not only does the thrill become harder to chase as the product’s effect gets weaker (anyone who’s bought Hellraiser boxsets will know the rules of diminishing returns) but there are only a finite number of franchises in the world and the hardened need to find new, strange ways of getting their kicks.

So bear with me. I realised quite late on – when the haze of chasing that thrill wore off – that this is one of the most dumb, pointless (and surprisingly expensive) endeavours I’ve committed to and, frankly, the least I can get out of it is an article.

UK genre fans may have noticed that in the last year or so, a lot of direct-to-DVD films have been showing up on supermarket shelves with shiny foil sleeves all depicting a sinister house. There are very rarely screenshots from the films on the back. I’ve tried to trace this to its origins and the only successful mainstream film that uses similar imagery is The Cabin In The Woods and its incredible Escher-esque folding house design. Obviously, the haunted house subgenre has enjoyed a resurgence lately with the likes of Paranormal Activity, Insidious and The Conjuring but only one of those three has a house on the artwork, which makes this whole thing even stranger. In terms of the knock-offs, the first I remember seeing was the appropriately titled Wrong House. From there, I became intrigued. While drawing non-existent paralells with a successful hit to market a low-budget film is nothing new (indeed, it’s Film Sales 101), this was a baffling, endearingly shameless circle of imitation and it’s still going strong. Look on the shelves of any major UK supermarket and you’ll see at least one film at any given time that just has a house and a spooky font on the cover with no indication of what the film actually is.

What finally hooked me in was that most of these releases are retitlings, many of which just take the original title and either add the word “House” on the end (ie: The Bleeding becomes The Bleeding House) or replace an existing word with “House” (ie: Darkroom becomes Dark House). I realised at this point that I had to open these doors and take a walk through these shiny houses on the shelf of my local Tesco. It was too tempting. As a horror fan, who can resist the idea of a) lots of films that all look alike lined up nicely in your DVD collection and b) the idea that these films could be ANYTHING? As the artwork and title rarely correlate to the content, this was a beautifully packaged Russian Roulette. Will I get a haunted house movie? A slasher? An arthouse horror? A black comedy? Will there even be a house in it?

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If you’ve ever, like me, wondered what’s behind these sleeves but, unlike me, haven’t been stupid enough to spend money and valuable time on finding out, then please… follow me into the neighbourhood as we go all around the houses.

Title: The Wrong House

Original Title: House Hunting (This is a strange one since it already had the desirable word “House” in the name but obviously it was somehow… wrong?)

What’s With The House? Two families show up to a house they both intend to buy and then find, no matter how many times they drive around it in circles, they can’t leave. They set up camp inside and find that while days, weeks, months pass without being able to leave, there is an ever-replenishing stock of canned stew in the cupboards. This means a good section of the run time is footage of people sat at a table eating canned stew.

The first third is almost watchable despite some choppy editing and an obvious low budget. It’s got a streak of humour (although I’m not sure how much is intentional) and the idea, while very Dead End/Twilight Zone, isn’t terrible. But really, there’s only so much stew and bickering you can take. At 100 minutes, it’s way too long and talky. By the time both families have their hopelessly contrived ‘secrets’ out and people are running around hacking each other up, you’ll have long zoned out. A tired-looking Marc Singer (The Beastmaster if you’re old enough to remember) does his best but this is not the House you are looking for…

Title: The Cabin

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Original Title: Bloodline (Don’t confuse Bloodline/The Cabin with Blood Cabin; we’ll get to that one later)

What’s With The House? Although smaller in stature to your usual “House”, The Cabin boasts on its sleeve that it is “Cabin In The Woods meets Insidious… Breathtaking!” This isn’t attributed to anyone, presumably because anyone who was on enough drugs to believe that would have died before they could’ve written down their thoughts. This one stars a guy called Matt Thompson who also writes and directs it. I’m not sure what his religion is but this feels a bit like the horror film equivalent of Christian metal. It’s like, he’s hitting the right beats and he has obviously learned to play his instruments in a certain style but there’s just something he’s not getting. It’s all too bland and clean-cut.

There is a bizarrely insistent religious message to this too (which takes precedence over logic and narrative), as Thompson (who plays a budding priest with doubts) takes his friends up to a spooky cabin in the woods only to find that it’s haunted by evil Native American spirits. He uses his Christianity to fight this which gives the whole thing a regrettable “My God’s Bigger Than Your God” vibe. I know I’ve focused on “the message” but it really does kind of override everything else. The story is phenomenally slow (why take five kids to a cabin in the woods and take AN HOUR before any of them are killed?), the FX are all very cheap CGI and none of it makes any sense. But, y’know, at least there is actually a cabin in it…

Title: The Lodge

Original Title: THE LODGE! (Amazing, although I feel they could’ve boosted sales by calling it The Lodge House…)

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What’s With The House? There is actually a lodge in this too. In fact, if they hadn’t included the absurd cover quote “The Shining Meets Cabin In The Woods!” (it’s nothing like either, obviously), this would be fairly truthful packaging. Here, we have a couple show up to a lodge that’s already occupied by a mysterious handyman. We see him, fairly early on, covered in blood so it’s no surprise when he turns out to be a nutter and an endless game of “Who can wander around in the dark for the longest?” begins.

There’s a lot of bantering and dialogue that goes nowhere (why have a character talk about their kickboxing class if you’re not even going to have any kickboxing in it, damnit?) and some bafflingly 1990s-influenced fashion. The male lead has a heroic mullet and the bad guy has curtains and a goatee! It’s supposed to be set in 2008. Maybe Colorado’s a bit “retro”? The one thing I found interesting was that it features Mandi Kreisher, who fans of yesteryear’s emo bands will recognise from the cover of Funeral For A Friend’s Hours album.

Title: The Factory

Original Title: Death Factory (Not sure why they took the death out? Unlike in actual real estate, the inclusion of death should increase sales of these properties!)

What’s With The House? So houses and cabins and lodges aren’t working out so well. It’s alright. There’s a factory here with exactly the same look so let’s try that… Actually, maybe not. This one is pretty special. A busload of tourists rock up to “The Death Factory” a Chamber of Horrors style museum that features souvenirs from history’s most famous serial killers (Gein, Gacy, Dahmer, Jack The Ripper, etc). Unfortunately, a mysterious black magician has been there first and used occult powers to bring the serial killers to life. Slashing ensues.

I admit this is in terrible taste since these guys are based on actual serial killers but I was still down with the idea for the sheer preposterousness alone. Unfortunately the script feels like it was written by a 13 year old boy with severe ADHD. All the characters are stock clichés, the story flits all over the place and makes little sense by the end (although it may somehow be a clunky metaphor for America’s War On Terror?) and whenever there’s an excuse for two girls to start kissing, they’ll take it! Oh boy, will they take it! However, [*** SPOILER ALERT ***] respect for the jaw-dropping reveal of Jack The Ripper’s identity when “he” pulls off his mask, top hat and coat to reveal “he” is actually a busty lesbian in skimpy designer lingerie (!). It’s idiotic but in a way so spectacularly boneheaded, I almost had to marvel at it.

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Title: Dark House

Original Title: Darkroom (One room’s not enough darkness! The public demand more darkness! Darken the whole damn house!)

What’s With The House? Back to the “Houses”, this one has Kaylee DeFer playing a the lone survivor of a car accident that killed her friends. She’s struggling to move on but her psychiatrist (Kate from Angel) lands her a part-time job as a cleaner/model (!) for “Darkroom Inc”. First day on the job doesn’t go too well though as she’s knocked unconscious and wakes up tied to a chair in front of a TV. A deep voice pretty much tells her that it wants to play a game and some seriously outdated Saw-lite hijinx follow.

It’s hard to believe this was made in 2013 because, despite much higher production values than is average on this list, it feels like it’s from the mid-2000s. There’s a bit of grisly torture in there, if you like that kind of thing, but this – despite being only 77 minutes – is one of the hardest “Houses” to visit. You’ll feel like you’ve lost days in the dragging narrative, while desperately searching the rooms for anything like characterisation, plot or surprise.

Title: The Bleeding House

Original Title: The Bleeding (Probably my favourite retitling. If you liked it then you shoulda put a House on it.)

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What’s With The House? Despite the hilarious retitle, this is actually a pretty good film. Like, really. I haven’t just lost my mind from the previous ones. It’s good. The budget is very low but The Bleeding (House) plays to its strengths; solid actors and a competent screenplay. A mysterious stranger (whose look is pure Brad Dourif in Wiseblood) rocks up at the house of an even more mysterious family and things get very dark very quickly.

I don’t want to ruin the story because, although it’s not the most shocking twist, it plays out to an enjoyable conclusion. There’s something cool about using influences like Wiseblood and Night Of The Hunter in a narrative that’s pure B-Horror and first-time director Philip Gellatt may well be one to watch in the future. Sadly, the fact that this was so strong means it’s broken the trend and now I can’t even rely on “it’s crap” to be a consistent quality throughout these “Houses”. So let’s see what’s next door…

Title: Blood Cabin

Original Title: Murder Loves Killers Too (What the? Just… what?? WHY?)

What’s With The House? Perhaps the cheapest property of the lot, this is one of those films that reminds me that the cinematic “bottom of the barrel” is in fact bottomless. Things can always get worse. In the same way that Blood Cabin‘s ludicrous original title mangles the English language, the film itself mangles the language of film. If these movies really were houses, this wouldn’t even be a shed.

It takes the common premise of five kids going to a cabin in the woods and being killed by a madman but is way off the mark in terms of timing. Rather than dragging things out, four of them die almost straight away which leaves a huge thirty minute section of just one character pursued slowly through the dark by the lummox-like killer (a bald middle-aged guy in a dressing gown called Steve. No, really). This is interminable but made somehow even worse by the film’s inability to stick to a tone. It tries for humour on occasion and falls flat by virtue of not being remotely funny, yet these crass interludes further ruin any shot it might have had at tension or scares. It’s hard to believe a story so slight can be so preposterous but this is just an awful mess. There’s a strong case to have this property condemned.

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Title: The Tenant

Original Title: The Cottage (An unprecedented retitling AWAY from the house to the inhabitant – can only imagine this was done because, in the UK, there was already a Cottage – the Reece Shearsmith splatter vehicle from a few years back… Let’s forget that there’s also aready a pretty famous Tenant…)

What’s With The House? Considering that the character’s surnames are “Carpenter” and “Mars”, you can probably guess that this is a suspense-heavy darkly comic thriller and it’s actually pretty decent. It is, perhaps unique to this list, a ‘proper’ film with a ‘name’ actor in the lead and, for my money, probably David Arquette’s best performance! A cash-strapped family rent out the cottage opposite their house to a shy but charming romance writer (Arquette) who swiftly turns menacing. Specifically he seems to be seducing one of their twin teenage daughters which makes for some very creepy scenes and allows Arquette to frequently show off the six-pack he’s cultivated, in varying states of undress. The script’s decent here, the acting is all up to scratch and I loved the tonal shift at the end from simmering sexual menace into grand guignol hysteria. A fun one!

So I might not have liked a lot of the properties I looked at but at least The Tenant was quite well-behaved and The Bleeding House passed the Homebuyer’s Survey with flying colors. Unfortunately, all that house hunting has tired me out so while I’m aware that there are far more DVDs coming out each week with these same cover designs, I’m passing the brochures on to you… Go buy yourself a House.