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If we go by the conventions of horror films, one of the single most dangerous occupations out there is home renovation. Sure, law enforcement, fire fighting and high-rise window-washing might seem more dangerous, at least on paper, but we know the truth: anytime someone tries to fix up a creepy, old, decaying country estate, there’s a roughly 90% chance of something terrible happening. If those were Vegas odds, Sin City would have gone the way of the dodo generations ago.

Writer-director Nick Willing’s Altar (2014) is but the latest in a long line of haunted house films precipitated on the above notion: a family moves into a creepy, isolated country manor in order to renovate it, runs into long-buried secrets and ghostly presences and must survive the sinister residence’s sustained assaults upon their persons and psyches. In this case, Meg Hamilton (Olivia Williams) is the renovator who, along with her artist husband Alec (Matthew Modine) and children, Penny (Antonia Clarke) and Harper (Adam Thomas Wright), move into the creepy abode. Faster than you can say “Jack and Wendy Torrance,” the family are dealing with ghostly manifestations, Alec’s obsession with suddenly crafting a life-like clay figure and Meg’s discovery of a strange, vaguely pagan floor mosaic. If you guessed that “possession” factors into the proceedings, you’d be right but Willing has a few tricks up his sleeve that help take Altar in a slightly different (even if barely so) direction from the rest of the herd.

As far as atmosphere and location go, Altar is strictly top-notch: there’s a genuine sense of foreboding that lingers over every scene, thanks in large part to the exceptionally creepy location. Quite simply, Radcliffe House is the kind of evil, Gothic edifice that can make or break a haunted house film: in this case, it goes an awful long way in stocking up good will for the (occasionally) rough going. Willing goes light on the obvious jump scares, allowing for the whole thing to feel much more organic and old-fashioned than similar films (obnoxiously loud musical stingers are, thankfully, few and far between) and cinematographer Jan Richter-Friis’ camera-work helps to subtly play up the creep-factor.

The acting is uniformly good, which is another important factor in this kind of film: when a movie relies on mood and atmosphere, nothing spoils the party quite as effectively as over-the-top, amateurish or stilted acting. Williams is excellent as the mother/renovator: her extremely expressive face always seems to be reflecting some new measure of fresh horror, amping the psychological horror to an almost unbearable level. Modine, who’s had an almost ridiculously varied career over the past 30+ years, doesn’t fare quite as well as Williams does, mostly because his character is saddled with a few more eye-rolling traits than hers is. That being said, Modine and Williams have good chemistry together: until things go completely off the rails, it’s easy to imagine these two as a (once) loving couple, which is certainly more than you can say for many horror film duos. As the beleaguered children, Clarke and Wright are quite good, although they don’t get quite as much to do as their parents: at the very least, neither one wears out their welcome which, again, is more than you can say for many young actors in horror productions.

If anything really lets the air out of Altar’s sails, it’s definitely the hum-drum, overly clichéd ending: while the plot has plenty of holes (especially in the later going), the film manages to glide over most of them pretty effortlessly until it crashes headfirst into the chasm that is the film’s final “revelation.” While I wouldn’t dream of ruining the ending (perhaps because I understand it so imperfectly), suffice to say that faithful genre devotees will have seen this exact same thing done many, many times in the past…and done much better and much clearer, might I add. It’s a pity, really, since the film has some fairly intriguing ideas about transmogrification that are completely lost in the muddle. However unique the film begins, it ends in territory that is, to be kind, well-worn.

Ultimately, Altar is a good, if not great, entry in the crowded “family in peril” subgenre of horror films. When the atmosphere and mood are allowed to develop at their own measured, glacial pace, Willing’s film stands tall above the pretenders, buoyed by its own sense of stately grandeur. When the film becomes overly familiar and middle-of-the-road, however, it sinks right back into the teeming masses, indistinguishable from any one of two dozen other similar films.

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