The three-story anthology is beautifully detailed, effective horror, but you may have Cats flashbacks
Maybe it isn’t saying much to note that Netflix’s stop-motion film The House features the most disturbing, skin-crawling, stomach-flipping vermin-based musical number since the 2019 CG-fest Cats. After all, there isn’t much competition for that title. But it should count for something that this collection of three weird animated stories is so capable of unnerving an audience with something so gleeful and playful. The film isn’t traditional horror, but it has deep-rooted horror elements that may creep up on viewers, just like those dancing parasites do.
Two of The House’s three stories look like they could take place in the same world as Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox: The protagonists here are similar anthropomorphic animals, constructed with the same kind of softness and warmth, and sometimes operating with the same kind of anxiety-fueled chattiness. But where Fantastic Mr. Fox is a quaint, homey fantasy, The House heads much further into the surreal stop-motion territory of Czech artist Jan Švankmajer. The film’s visual style is deceptively cozy, but the stories are anything but.
In the first of the three 30-minute segments (titled I, II, and III), a family of four living quietly in the country are thrown off-course by a visit from some hateful relatives, who sneer at the father, Raymond (Watchmen’s Matthew Goode) for the modest ambitions that have him living in such a small, rural home. Shortly after that, a mysterious, eccentric architect offers to build the seething Raymond and his dubious but supportive wife Penny (Claudie Blakley) a lavish new home, on the condition that they move there and never leave. Their young daughter Mabel (Mia Goth) is horrified by the changes in her parents when they move into their vast new mansion, where silent workers are constantly disassembling and rebuilding everything around them, and elaborate meals appear in the dining room every night, provided by unseen hands.
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The segment’s messaging about what makes a house into a home is simple enough, and so is the obvious horror-story progression of the plot. But Belgian directors Emma de Swaef and Marc James Roels tell their story with eerie, effective touches. Unlike the characters in the other two segments, Mabel and her family are human — but they’re an unusually soft and shapeless form of human, with bulging, soft felted faces and beady little features, all set close together. They look like blurry Aardman Animation characters — Wallace and Gromit, but out of focus, or as if they’d melted a bit after being left out in the rain. The house around them is more concrete and looming, and it dwarfs them and makes them feel less real as the story progresses. The segment feels like a child’s nightmare, with an ending to match.
In the second segment, from Swedish director Niki Lindroth von Bahr, the characters are rats. While the bones of the house and the lines of its exterior are exactly the same, it seems to be a different place entirely — an airy, spacious home located in a bustling city. A contractor, an ambitious up-and-comer credited solely as “Developer” (and voiced by musician Jarvis Cocker), has taken out a clearly ruinous loan in order to refurbish the place as a no-expenses-spareds showcases for modern luxuries, from imported marble floors to phone-integrated mood lighting. But the house is infested with hard-to-eradicate fur beetles, which have other ideas for the place. And that somehow ties into a different form of home infestation that the Developer has a hard time shaking.
Of the three segments, this one is both the creepiest and the least satisfying. Horror stories certainly don’t have to be morality tales, but it’s never fully satisfying to watch a character endure terrible tortures for no clear reason. The Developer’s war against the beetles is laced with irony and inevitability, but there’s no particular sense that he invited it. The things that happen to him aren’t rectifying some cosmic wrong, or laying out some important theme for the viewer. It’s like watching entropy in action. It’s meant to be mordantly funny to watch his exasperation as events escalate and his life falls apart, but viewers with empathy — or an aversion to maggots — may want to skip this one.
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The third segment, from British actor-director Paloma Baeza, eases away from the oppression of the first two stories. This time, the residents of the house — now surrounded by floodwaters in a softly post-apocalyptic setting — are anthropomorphic cats. Like the Developer, the house’s owner, a calico named Rosa (Susan Wokoma), is obsessed with renovating the house. She’s been running it as a boarding house, but after “the floods,” most of her residents abandoned her, and she’s left with only two tenants, neither of whom can pay rent. Elias (Will Sharpe), a shy black cat with a clear crush on Rosa, and the easygoing hippie-cat Jen (Helena Bonham Carter) gently dodge her hints about payment, and when Jen’s guru friend Cosmos (Paul Kaye) arrives, he further complicates the situation.
Like the first two chapters, the final story centers on an ambitious striver obsessed with her house, and watching her ambitions deflate apart around her. But where the first story is chilling and the second one is saddening, the third has other ambitions that make the whole project fall more clearly into place. All three parts were scripted by Irish playwright and screenwriter Enda Walsh (best known for 2008’s gutting historical film Hunger, directed by Steve McQueen and starring Michael Fassbender). And while Walsh’s scripts don’t initially seem to take place in the same world or have much in common, apart from the house’s layout, this third segment brings all three into focus.
All three parts of The House have their nightmarish aspects, often literally, as reality shifts around the characters, or ordinary objects are imbued with dread. In spite of the furry characters in the second two stories and the child protagonist in the first, this anthology isn’t meant for children. It isn’t violent or sexual, the usual signs of “not for children” fare, but its focus on unnerving the audience and unmooring the characters from reality makes it a more adult saga than most stop-motion projects.
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And so does the central theme, about the ways the characters’ obsessions with and attachments to the house hurt and limit them. All three of them associate the house with a prosperity they’re lacking and a future they can’t reach, and all three of them are warped by it. But only Rosa, in the movie’s final moments, is handed a solution. It seems significant that she’s also the only one of the three leads with friends who care about her and want to help her, even if she doesn’t recognize what they’re doing as help. None of the main characters can see past the fantasies they’ve concocted for themselves, until they’re forced to by circumstances, and for all of them, the house is a prison.
The audience for that message may be a little limited, much like the audience for a collection of stories this dark and (in two cases) cynical. But the craft of The House itself may be enough of a lure to draw people in. Like so much stop-motion, this movie lives in its details — the rich textures of the characters, their clothes, and the objects around them, the elaborate dollhouse qualities of their worlds, the clear sense of care and time that went into building these sets. Viewers may be put off by that nauseating parasite musical routine, with its singing, dancing creepy-crawlies and their grotesque enthusiasm. But it’s hard not to appreciate the sheer amount of work that went into crafting this threefold fever dream, and the directors’ sheer effectiveness at creating such instantly believable fantasy worlds. They set out to make these stories vividly oppressive and claustrophobic, and they certainly succeeded.
The House is streaming on Netflix now.
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