House in the Alley (2012)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2014-06-01 21:30

Written and Directed by: Le-Van Kiet
Starring: Thanh Van Ngo, Son Bao Tran, Van Hai Bui

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman

You'll never forget the terror that lives inside.

Billed as Vietnam’s first horror film, Le-Van Kiet’s House in the Alley continues in the tradition of its Eastern forefathers: it’s a film haunted by spirits and domestic turmoil, a low-key, slow-burner that looks to unsettle psychologically more than it does physically. If there’s a textbook for how to construct a haunted house movie without resorting to a parade of empty jolts, the film would likely satisfy many of the requirements—which is sort of the problem. In his effort to emphasize his characters and their drama, Kiet suppresses many of the horror elements and leaves audiences with a somewhat dull, plodding portrait of a marriage in shambles.

You could be forgiven for believing otherwise if you only witnessed the film’s opening sequence, which finds where expectant parents Thao (Ngo Thanh Van) and Thanh (Tran Bao Son) enduring a gruesome, heartbreaking miscarriage. Personally, even childbirths that come off without a hitch are terrifying, so this blood-spattered, agonizing scene had me weak at the knees. And it only gets weirder from there, as the couple decides to house the malformed, stillborn fetus in a small casket and keep it in their bedroom, a decision that causes the rift between the two, especially when Thao begins to suffer from postpartum depression. Dead-eyed and aimless, she lethargically broods about the house while her husband attempts to plunge back into work, where a looming labor strike is compounding his problems.

So you can only imagine what happens once the couple begins to suspect their house is haunted: they hear the flitting of footsteps followed by ghastly children’s laughter, and one has to wonder if they regret keeping that fetus at the foot of their bed. I don’t know. House in the Alley sounds pretty kooky, but it’s played straighter than straight. With its gloomy, somber aesthetic, it feels like a lost film from the early and mid-aughts, sort of like a V-horror answer to all of the J-horror from that era. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing—you could choose worse templates for inspiration, and Kiet’s mimicry is strong, particularly when he’s hitting his horror beats. The miscarriage sequence is a horrific collection of squirm-inducing images and surrounding jolts, both of which work in concert to get the film off to a stirring, disorienting start.

If only it maintained its momentum. Instead, it settles for a domestic drama that eventually escalates to a predictable climax. Reminiscent of a watered-down version of Antichrist, the film sets Thao and Thanh opposite each other; initially, they’re merely estranged and attempting to pick up the pieces, but they’re literally at each other’s throats later on, when Thao’s depression evolves into something even more sinister. Even if I didn’t find the proceedings particularly gripping, there’s something disturbing about her degeneration throughout the film, which is why the out-of-left-field revelation at the film’s climax completely undercuts whatever effectiveness the film has and allows it to wallow in tired, supernatural clichés. It’s a copout that diverts from and deflates the film’s real tension between Thao and Thanh.

To its credit, House in the Alley is grasping at more than supernatural chicanery for much of its runtime. Its observations on Vietnam’s systemic maltreatment of women are sharp, biting asides revealing a decades-long oppression that’s unfortunately reinforced throughout generations. Thao’s mother-in-law is a shrew who lords over her son’s life and wonders why he even bothers with his damaged wife; the same is true of Thanh’s co-workers, who cannot fathom his attempts to look past Thao’s depression and hysteria. When she eventually takes up an axe, it feels like she’s lashing out against years of repression and abuse, and it’s a powerful moment until it’s (again) punctured by the last-minute backstory to explain the ghosts’ presence. It turns out Thao and Thanh are at the mercy of supernatural forces, which somehow supersede the more immediate, worldly tormentors in their lives, and they’re seemingly excused from the proceedings by film’s end.

Kiet’s efforts with House in the Alley are admirable, and he has a firm grip on creating an oppressive, dreadful atmosphere. Visually speaking, he’s clearly been an ardent student of the genre for some time, as his film is a nice mix of the macabre and the melancholy when it wants to be. The problem is that it just doesn’t want to be very often. Still, you can almost excuse this, given the film has so much on its mind—it’s part domestic drama, part social commentary, part ghost story. It went on to become Vietnam’s biggest film ever, a distinction that earned its place on the festival circuit for the past couple of years before arriving on North American home video thanks to Scream Factory. With the exception of the film’s trailer, this is a bare-bones effort, albeit one that still features a strong transfer and a booming 5.1 track. Horror fans looking for an exotic (but familiar) taste should find time to pay a visit to the House in the Alley. Rent it!

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