Director Robby Henson has scored the Christian thriller hat trick: he's now adapted three supernatural suspense novels in just three years. He started with The Visitation by Frank Peretti and then turned to Ted Dekker's Thr3e. And so, it makes sense that his third would be House, a tag-team work by Peretti and Dekker.
When the novel House released, I was curious about the brainchild of two of Christian publishing's bestselling novelists. I'd enjoyed some work by each author; knowing their strengths, I figured they'd knock the trapped-in-a-house-with-a-killer story out of the park. Not so much. Actually, I really disliked the book. However, I kept thinking: But as a movie, this could be pretty good. The book possessed good tension and eerie scenes that, if stripped of extraneous, heavy-handed narration, could make for a fast and intense ride.
So, I was glad when I heard about the film version. And I do like it better than the book (although that may not say much). It's not the scary horror film I thought it could be—or that I think the studio is trying to sell it as—but House has some real strengths. It does share some of the problems plaguing both of Hensons' critically-panned Christian films—but all three have consistently improved and House is clearly the best.
Like the book, the movie centers on troubled married couple Jack (Reynaldo Rosales) and Stephanie (Heidi Dippold) as they are on their way to see a marriage counselor. They get lost and end up stranded in the middle of nowhere. Luckily, they stumble on an old inn where they meet more stranded travelers, Randy (J.P. Davis) and Leslie (Julie Ann Emery). Things get weird when they meet the family that runs the place—three odd hillbilly characters who constantly point out that their visitors are sinners with evil hearts. Things get worse when a killer known only as the Tin Man shows up traps them all in the hotel with the frightening message that at dawn he'll kill them—unless the group provides one dead body first.
Obviously, the film is about the sinfulness of our hearts and a big reminder that the wages of sin are always death. Someone has to die for each of these traveler's sins. But will the Tin Man really spare them if they deliver the body of one of the house's other sinners?
That's a very promising Christian film premise. But like the book, the promise is marred in the execution. The camera work, set design, special effects, and look are pretty top-notch—a real improvement on a lot of movies by Christian filmmakers. And the acting, especially by Rosales as Jack, is solid (with the caveat that most of the film requires them to just run around and look scared). But missteps overshadow the pluses.
For starters, the film doesn't achieve the horror or creep factor it could have—or that the trailer seems to promise—mainly because of strange stylistic choices. Henson employs a lot of MTVish fast-forward and quick-cut devices that make it very hard for the terror to settle over the viewer. Think about classic horror films like The Shining or the original Halloween. They weren't flashy or in-your-face. These films subtly and slowly created the scare tactics, or let the terror linger menacingly around the next corner. That is not allowed here. Case in point: There's a dining room scene that could have been skin-crawlingly eerie as the weird host family batters their guests with questions like, "You gonna violate your woman in my house?" But instead of letting the viewer soak up the sinister awkwardness, the camera never stops moving, 45 things are happening at once, and quick cuts break up the frenetic scene to the point that I couldn't feel the scene simply because I couldn't catch up with it.