amateur films, Aya Cash, bed and breakfasts, butterfly collector, Charles Borland, cinema, couples' therapy, cuckoo clocks, Curtis Shumaker, D.W. Young, dark comedies, David Ullmann, eccentric people, escaped mental patient, feature-film debut, film reviews, films, Happy House, horror, horror films, Kathleen McNenny, Khan Baykal, Marceline Hugot, Mike Houston, mother-son relationships, Movies, muffins, Oliver Henzler, quirky, silly films, Stivi Paskoski, The Happy House, writer-director-editor
Some bad films make it incredibly easy to dislike them. Perhaps it’s a consciously made bad film masquerading as something “genuine,” always one of my pet peeves: there’s a world of difference between an Ed Wood film, for example, and anything that bears the “Sharknado” moniker. Sometimes a film is just offensive and awful, so tone-deaf and mortally stupid that it manages to miss the area marked “edgy satire” and land square in the one marked “trash dump.” In some cases, a bad film will be so irritating, whether thanks to migraine-inducing filmmaking, ludicrously terrible performances or a truly wretched script, that it becomes a complete chore to sit through: this is the kind of film where you check your watch a dozen times during the opening credits, each time secretly hoping for some respite via space-time anomalies. Even though “bad” films can be lots of fun to watch, there are some bad films that do deserve to be pilloried.
Sometimes, however, there’s just no joy to be found in beating up on a bad film. While some bad films are willfully obnoxious, like out-of-control brats throwing epic temper tantrums in public places, other bad films end up being much more sympathetic. Like the aforementioned films of Ed Wood, some films have the very best intentions but end up falling short on just about every level possible. While I always feel a little bad about saying anything negative about movies like this, I also don’t believe in participation awards: a well-intentioned bad film is still a bad film, at the end of the day. In that spirit, writer-director-editor D.W. Young’s The Happy House (2013) is a very bad film, albeit one with very good intentions, sort of like a sweet, slightly lop-eared puppy that just can’t stop crapping on the floor.
Wendy (Aya Cash) and Joe (Khan Baykal) are a feuding couple who opt for a relaxed weekend at a remote bed and breakfast in order to work on their relationship. The problems with their relationship become quite evident once it’s revealed that Wendy detests b&bs: this was another one of Joe’s ideas that just bulldozes through any and all of her protests, leading us to believe that this weekend might be a little doomed from the get-go. Once the couple get to the titular inn, The Happy House, they quickly settle into a very strange situation. The b&b’s owner, Hildie (Marceline Hugot) seems incredibly nice and bakes a mean muffin but there’s something just a little off about her silent, lurking son, Skip (Mike Houston). There’s also something decidedly odd about her multiple-page list of rules and regulations, the violation of which will result in “three strikes” and consequences that Hildie and Skip laugh away with the rather sinister “you don’t want to know.”
As they settle in to the Happy House, Wendy and Joe meet the inn’s other resident, an eccentric Swedish butterfly collector, Nils Hverven (Oliver Henzler), who’s hunting for an exceptionally rare specimen that’s been sighted in the immediate area. He’s also managed to acquire two strikes, thanks to his apparent disregard for the rules, and he cautions the couple to be careful of the “consequences.” After Nils earns his third violation, the lepidopterist seems to disappear, leading Wendy and Joe to believe that Hildie and her son might be responsible. When the friendly, local deputy (Curtis Shumaker) shows up with news about a dangerous, escaped mental patient, however, a new wrinkle is added to the proceedings. With danger around every turn, Wendy and Joe must figure out who can be trusted and who should be feared unless they want their stay at Hildie’s bed and breakfast to become permanently open-ended.
As I mentioned earlier, The Happy House is not a good film in any way, shape or form. The problems are legion: the acting is uniformly bad, ranging from stagey to under-stated but never once realistic or genuine; none of the performers have any chemistry together, whether playing a couple or a mother and son; the script is tone-deaf and awkward; the “twists” are both obvious and silly; the incredibly odd musical score is jarring and never seems to fit the mood of the film at any given point and the film feels about 20 minutes longer than it needs to be, even though it clocks in around 80 minutes. In fact, one gets the distinct impression that The Happy House might have made a fairly entertaining/amusing short (the film’s “twist” happens at the 30 minute mark and would have formed a fairly decent conclusion to a short) but becomes tedious when unnecessarily stretched to full length.
As far as the acting goes, I assumed that the cast consisted of new and amateur performers but was surprised to find that this wasn’t really anyone’s first rodeo: in particular, I was surprised to find how many films Hugot had under her belt since her performance here was so literal and blunt…there were few scenes that didn’t feel as if she were delivering precisely memorized lines rather than actually inhabiting the character. I have to assume that much of the blame for this lies with Young, especially looking at some of these actors’ past performances.
Despite how bad Young’s feature debut ends up being, however, there’s something that’s so earnest and oddly likable about the film that I feel kind of bad for not liking it. While the film’s script is a complete mess (by the time I realized the film was supposed to be a dark comedy, it was already half-way over), the core idea isn’t bad and there seems like some genuine potential here. Even though none of the actors have any chemistry together, there are individual moments that hint at what might have been possible, under different circumstances. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t point out that the film’s poster is pretty damn fantastic: I wish that level of production design and attention to detail had been present in the actual film but it at least indicates that there’s a vein of real potential running below the mess, even it rarely springs to the surface.
Ultimately, The Happy House was not offensively terrible nor was it the equivalent of fingernails on chalkboard. You could tell that lots of love went into the production, even if the overall results were decidedly south of successful: these appear to be folks who are genuinely interested in making movies and there’s nothing wrong with that whatsoever. On the other hand, The Happy House was, easily, one of the worst films I’ve seen in several months and there’s just no way to sugarcoat that. While I’ll never tire of coming up with new ways to slam something like, say, The Comedy (2012), I definitely don’t get that same enjoyment from this. As long as Young and company keep trying, I’ll keep giving them a shot: I’m not sure if this will ever be “diamond in the rough” territory but, sometimes, you just gotta give the nice guys another chance.