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house2

The cinematic world is filled with cheap, poorly made and unquestionably bad films: that’s probably the worst kept secret in the entirety of human existence. For every amazing, unmitigated classic, there are at least ten astonishingly bad bottom-scrapers following in its wake, like flies drawn to rotten meat. Filmmaking, after all, is an industry like any other: some architects design works of art, others build out-houses…there will always be a market for both.

This is especially true for the horror genre, where cheaply made “product” is often seen as either a rite of passage for a burgeoning filmmaker or a quick and easy way to pocket some of that fanboy dinero. Suffice to say, it’s often a full-time job separating the cream from the crud, especially when so many films stuff their bullshit sausages into attractive outer casings: many times, you have to wade hip-deep into a film before you realize just how nasty and cloudy the water has become. By then, of course, it’s usually too late.

Michael Bartlett’s House of Last Things (2013) does the honorable thing, then, and reveals its intentions from the very first frame: it’s not a good film and doesn’t mind if we know it. Opening with a ridiculous, slo-mo shot of golf clubs flying through the air, backed by one of the most bombastic scores since the infamous over-head drive in The Shining (1980), Bartlett’s fourth feature film (and first since 1998) is a confusing mess of awkward acting, strange dialogue and obvious camera set-ups, all with a head-scratching golfing preoccupation that mostly involves finding balls in weird places (like…I dunno…inside an apple…). It might not be a good film but it’s never a boring film.

The movie begins with a married couple, Alan (Randy Schulman) and Sarah (Diane Dalton), as they’re preparing to leave for a much-needed vacation in Italy. While they’re gone, Kelly (Lindsey Haun) has been enlisted to watch over their spacious home. As soon as the couple has left, however, Kelly gets a couple of visitors in the persons of her brother, Tim (RJ Mitte) and her skeevy boyfriend, Jesse (Blake Berris). Tim’s a nice enough guy, reasonable and fairly level-headed but Jesse is a complete spazzy douchebag, the kind of character in a horror movie who’s usually designated “Victim #1.” Jesse is a complete asshole to both Tim and Kelly, although the bad boy routine certainly seems to be working wonders on one of them (hint: it’s not the one who used to be on Breaking Bad).

As the trio butt heads, odd things begin to happen around the house: strange shadows pass by the outside windows, blue-collar Jesse develops an unexplained interest in wine and opera and mysterious yellow balloons start popping up everywhere. And, of course, let’s not forget about those damn golf balls, which turn up everywhere from the sugar canister to the aforementioned apples. Meanwhile, as this is going on, we catch up with Alan and Sarah on their awkward Italian vacation. Just like back home, Alan is plagued by golf balls, along with a sinister Harlequin clown, who pulls a golf ball out of Alan’s ear, ala a 10-year-old’s birthday party. There’s also the nagging notion that something unknown and unpleasant has transpired between Alan and Sarah, some sort of past trauma that neither is willing to discuss.

Meanwhile, back at the bat cave: Jesse gets a wild hair up his ass, heads to the local grocery store and appears to kidnap a young boy who’s waiting outside. He takes his young hostage, Adam (Micah Nelson), back to Alan and Laura’s house (much to Kelly and Tim’s immense consternation), where he plans to ransom the kid off, even though he has no idea of how to contact his parents/guardians. After a day passes and there’s no news of a missing kid, however, Kelly comes to the realization that no one has reported him missing…because no one wants him back.

This frightening revelation leads to a series of events that include (but are not limited to): a real estate agent attacked by aggressive yellow balloons; possessions; homemade porno mags; scary visions; intense, indoor toilet-papering; old-time golfers; long-held secrets; a medium who shows up, out of nowhere, and pulls a Zelda Rubenstein on us; more golf balls than you can shake a stick at and a weird apple fetish that might be Biblical but is probably just for convenience. In other words: it all collapses into one glorious, goofy, dog-pile of insane influences and bat-shit crazy plot developments. By the time it’s over, you’ll never look at golf balls…or apples…or balloons…or RJ Mitte, for that matter…the same way again.

There’s not much about House of Last Things that works, to be honest, with the problems and issues stacked like wayward Tetris blocks. The film frequently seems like a straight-faced farce or subtle parody (the scene where Rose asks if the house was built over a golf course had to be a joke…I won’t accept any other possibility), although it also seems to be taking itself way too seriously: the score is always tense and gloomy, while the drama is frequently pitched at a near hysterical level. The split focus between Alan and Sarah’s jaunt through Italy and Kelly and company’s adventures back home does more to kill momentum than give insight into either storyline, while also making little sense in context of the film’s ultimate revelations.

The acting tends to the awkward, made worse by dialogue that often comes out of left-field and seems forced and strained. None of the cast really click together, which makes the various relationships difficult to accept: as mentioned earlier, Blake Berris’ Jesse is such a thoroughly loathsome character that his relationship with Kelly never makes sense. Some of the performances, such as Michele Mariana’s bizarre medium (I guess…?) Rose Pepper, are campy and over-the-top, while others, like Micah Nelson’s Adam are flat to the point of non-existence.

Perhaps the biggest overall issue with the film, however, is how little sense it all ends up making. There’s a point, sure, and even enough vestiges of clues to half-way get there but so much of the film feels arbitrary and unfocused that the whole thing feels kind of surreal. It also doesn’t help that the fright sequences are staged in ways that all but guarantee failure: one of the big set-pieces involves yellow balloons that pop, menacingly, in a real estate agent’s face, as she freaks out. The “For Sale” sign bursting into flames is a nice touch, as she runs out, screaming, but it’s more like the cherry on an outrageously silly sundae. It’s impossible to build up tension or feel genuine fear in a situation like that, regardless of how seriously said scene is staged: replace Michael Myers with Sponge Bob and you get the drift.

For all of my issues with the film, however, I’ll be the first to admit: I was never less than totally wrapped up in what was going on, albeit for reasons that might not have been the original intent of the filmmakers. It’s obvious that care and love went into the film, not necessarily due to the performances (RJ Mitte, in particular, looks like he just wants the whole thing to be over with), but certainly through the detailed, fastidious production design. A lot of attention was paid to establishing recurring themes and motifs (the yellow balloons, the golf balls, the apples), so it’s clear that Bartlett and company put thought into this, for better or worse. The film often looks good, even if it rarely makes much sense.

A quick look at Michael Bartlett’s bio reveals an interesting career that stretches back to his first feature, in 1987 (made in Germany, although Bartlett is originally from California), and includes music videos and another German feature. After watching House of Last Things, I’m curious to see Bartlett’s earlier films: perhaps I’ve missed an over-riding theme or something that might bring a little more order to the insanity. As it stands, however, I found his most recent production to be a mind-boggling miss, albeit a constantly entertaining one. If nothing else, I’ll be keeping my distance from both golf balls and yellow balloons in the near future: that’s one point that I did get, loud and clear.

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