Death House: Ambitious But Flawed Horror Homage

Death House has been one of the more talked about indie horror movies in recent memory. This is no small part due to the sheer number of horror alumni in the cast. Fans have described Death House as ‘The Expendables’ of horror movies. It’s a virtual ‘who’s who’ of horror wrapped up in vintage 80’s style. Do you know what else it’s wrapped in? A purely batshit crazy story likely to give the recent Nicolas Cage effort, Mandy, a run for its money.

Synopsis

A remote and secretive prison called Death House grants two FBI agents – Boon and Novak – an exclusive tour. The subterranean facility houses the most depraved and violent individuals on nine levels. But the inmates may not be the only monsters in Death House. Within its walls, medical staff conduct brutal and unethical experiments in the hopes of unlocking the secrets of their residents. When a power outage frees all of Death House’s inmates, Boon and Novak must fight their way from level to level. Waiting for them on the Ninth Level are the ‘Five Evils’, the facility’s most feared residents.

Death House is a Narrative Nightmare

From a pure storytelling perspective, Death House is almost inexplicably indescribable. Trust me, the above synopsis barely scratches the surface. Gunnar Hansen of Texas Chainsaw Massacre fame, along with Harrison Smith, wrote the screenplay. What they put together is a ‘dog’s breakfast’ of occasionally delightful off-the-wall ideas. In fact, there’s no shortage of ideas in Death House. There’s doctors performing unethical surgeries on homeless people to make them look like killers’ past victims. Cast toss around a lot of pseudo-scientific jargon about virtual reality, hallucinogenic drugs, and rehabilitation. Tony Todd bookends the movie as some sort of ‘blood farmer.’ Don’t ask about Bill Mosely’s third act soliloquy that puts technology and social media alongside notions of ‘good and evil.’

Instead, Death House struggles to get all these admittedly cool concepts to gel into a coherent story.

A shortage of intriguing ideas is not a problem. Instead, Death House struggles to get all these admittedly cool concepts to gel into a coherent story. For the first 30 odd minutes, Death House jumps from idea to idea with no firm storytelling base for the audience. Much of first half is seemingly devoted to downloading all these ideas onto the audience. The problematic storytelling approach is exacerbated by what feels like choppy editing. At times, it felt like I had missed things, but going back and re-watching didn’t help. Some plot details must have been left on the editing room floor. Ultimately, Death House works best as an aesthetic experience as opposed to a cohesive story.

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Death House Substitutes Violence For Scares

If Death House is a crammed and confusing story, it’s equally a visual assault on the senses. Director Harrison Smith’s homage to 80’s action/horror violence should satisfy hardcore horror fans. The focus here is not on creepy atmosphere or scares, but rather body mutilating gore. Along with some brutal stabbings and throat-slicing, Harrison delivers on some intestine-dripping mutilations. One of the movie’s more memorable images includes a trio of fleshless creatures gorging on victims. Poor lighting in some scenes reduces the visceral impact of some of this gore.

Death House re-kindles that VHS–feel of low-budget 80’s horror-actioneers.

Where Death House falls a little short is its ability to maintain a surrealist tone. Movies like Suspiria, Phantasm, and Carnival of Souls could shirk storytelling demands because they so effectively captured the feeling of a nightmare. Each of these movies maintained a sense of dreamlike dread over their runtimes. Death House re-kindles that VHS–feel of low-budget 80’s horror-actioneers. Nevertheless, it never really taps into enough of a nightmarish surrealism to justify its often incoherent story.

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Death House Boasts a ‘Hall of Fame’ Horror Cast

Arguably, Death House has garnered a lot of attention for the sheer volume of recognizable horror actors in the cast. Aside from the absence of a few big names, most notably Robert Englund, you’ll recognize a lot of faces if you’ve watched more than a few horror movies in the last few decades. Rob Zombie alumni Bill Moseley and Sid Haig show up. Michael Berryman (The Hills Have Eyes), Tony Todd (Candyman), and Vernon Wells (Commando) are present and accounted for. Several ‘Scream Queens’ turn up including Barbara Crampton (Re-Animator), Dee Wallace (The Howling), Felissa Rose (Sleepaway Camp), and Camille Keaton (I Spit on Your Grave). Even Troma Entertainment founder Lloyd Kaufman joins in on the fun.

Though Death House boasts an impressive cast of horror regulars, it’s a a stretch to coin it ‘The Expendables’ of horror. Most of these horror actors make only brief appearances in the movie. Some of these appearances don’t amount to much more than a ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ cameo. By and large, none of these actors are connected or interact in any story-driven way. While Kane Hodder is given a more significant role as the principal antagonist, Death House largely belongs to Cody Longo and Cortney Palm, as Agents Novak and Boon, respectively.

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Death House May Find Cult Status in the Future

Death House isn’t a bad movie, and it’s certainly one I desperately wanted to love, Truth be told, it’s an ambitious movie that probably falls short of the cult status it desperately wants. There’s a lot of fun to be had with this B-movie pastiche. For starters, it’s an absolute blast to see so many familiar faces in one horror movie. While much of the movie is incoherent, there’s no denying that some of the ‘off-the-wall’ craziness is intriguing. Perhaps Death House will age well into midnight movie status.

THE PROFESSOR’S FINAL GRADE: C+

 

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I am a Criminology professor in Canada but I've always had a passion for horror films. Over the years I've slowly begun incorporating my interest in the horror genre into my research. After years of saying I wanted to write more about horror I have finally decided to create my own blog where I can share some of my passion and insights into the films I love.

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