Director: Alastair Orr
Cast: Sharni Vinson, Carlyn Burchell, Zino Ventura, Steven John Ward
Runtime: 1 hr 27 mins
Released By: Shaw
Opening Day: 30 March 2017
Synopsis: From A House On Willow Street is a frightening new horror film. Sharni Vinson (Step Up 3d, You’re Next) stars as Hazel, a roguish kidnapper, who, along with 3 accomplices, abducts a young heiress. When they have her locked up in their inescapable lair, they discover she is possessed by a terrifying demon, which plunges them into a nightmarish experience of supernatural horror.
Like last year’s sleeper hit ‘Don’t Breathe’, ‘House on Willow Street’ traps a bunch of criminals in the throes of their target. Here, the foolhardy bunch are four kidnappers led by Hazel (Sharni Vinson), whose mark Katherine (Carlyn Burchell) is the daughter of a wealthy diamond baron. In order that Hazel can run away with her parolee boyfriend Ade (Steven John Ward), the duo inform their co-conspirators – Ade’s cousin James (Gustav Gerdener) and his partner Mark (Zino Ventura) – that they only have six weeks to pull off the kidnapping. As it turns out, that is only the least of their concerns, given how there’s no one else to be seen in the house, the front door is already unlocked and the security system disarmed. In fact, Katherine has already been awaiting their arrival, seeing as how she intends to use them to resurrect an ancient demonic force which is in possession of her soul.
How it plays out is hardly surprising, as director and co-writer Alastair Orr lets Katherine torment each one of her so-called ‘captors’ by playing on their worst nightmares, exploiting their respective vulnerabilities so that the demon named Tranguul can claim enough souls and finally manifest itself in human form: Hazel gets visions of her severely burnt mother, whom she failed to save from a fire; Ade sees a former partner whom he had left for dead after their car crashed; and last but not least Mark is haunted by his dead six-year-old daughter. As you may expect too, each one of these encounters is yet another ‘jump scare’ opportunity, and let’s just say that Orr has no qualms using the tried-and-tested cliché of sudden loud noises and quick cuts, somewhat ignorant that his lack of restraint ends up being less terrifying than frustrating.
It should be said that this isn’t the sort of elegant horror James Wan makes that is composed of stylish well-choreographed sequences which pay as much attention to buildup as it does to payoff. Oh no, Orr tends more to the shock-and-awe tactics of grindhouse horror, which means plenty of gore, violence and even hideousness. The deaths are grisly, the possession via icky tentacles like long tongues with spikes that come out of the possessed mouths into that of its victim, and the possessed have bloodshot eyes, engorged veins and look almost like zombies. This is designed for the shlocky crowd, so those who do not like their horror graphic should simply stay away; on the other hand, those who long for the vulgarity of 70s and 80s macabre-ness will have something to cheer about.
Yet there is no denying that it simply does not have enough to hold its audience’s interest even over a standard one-and-a-half hours. Once it reveals at the midway point just what happened to Katherine’s parents and the two Catholic priests whose bodies Ade and James find back at the house, the rest of the movie becomes one chase sequence after another, the only complication being how Katherine attempts to play her victims against each other. While it was probably budgetary considerations that constrained the movie largely to the abandoned warehouse where Katherine is held (aside from the couple of scenes in the eponymous house), it is puzzling why the filmmakers never fully exploit the claustrophobia of their setting, resorting instead to clichés like a room of creepy mannequins, another with hanging chains and even a tight crawlspace without explaining how and why these came about in the first place.
As much as it aims to switch gears in the way ‘Don’t Breathe’ did, ‘House on Willow Street’ never quite makes for a satisfying hostage thriller or a demonic horror – the former does not pack enough suspense, and the latter too simplistic. In fact, that could be said of the movie as a whole, which is too straightforward for its own good, never quite developing any of the characters’ back stories sufficiently for us to buy into their torment or even Hazel’s own personal connection to the house that she hides from the rest of her team at the start. This is ultimately meat-and-potatoes B-grade fare, despite an intriguing setup, more-than-decent creature effects and some gonzy demon action at the end. If you’re in the mood for some grindhouse horror, then step right in; otherwise, you’re better off just continuing your walk down the street.
(Despite an intriguing setup that turns its kidnapping premise into demonic possession, this low-budget South African flick is ultimately too straightforward and too reliant on jump scares to be anything better than grindhouse horror)
Review by Gabriel Chong