(By Matt Konopka) When I was a kid, I used to imagine a film filled with all of my favorite horror icons. How many of us wouldn’t want to see Freddy, Jason, Leatherface, Chucky, Candyman, Pinhead, and so on, all in the same movie? If Marvel could do it with The Avengers, why not horror? Ignoring the obvious rights reasoning, it’s something all of us horror fans would probably kill to witness. Death House may not be that, but it’s damn close…
…Written/directed by Harrison Smith (Camp Dread), with additional writing by deceased horror legend, Gunnar Hansen (Leatherface from the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre), Death House is one of the most ambitious horror films in recent memory. The film follows Agent Toria Boon (Cortney Palm) as she and her partner, Agent Novak (Cody Longo) embark on an exclusive tour of a secret prison known as the Death House. When the power shuts down, the agents are forced to fight their way through a labyrinth of horrors while being pursued by a murderous gang of inmates led by a ruthless killer named Sieg (Kane Hodder).
So here’s the catch: Death House isn’t just a badass sounding horror flick. It also features an unheard-of amount of horror stars making appearances in either major roles or small cameos. Just look at this list: Adrienne Barbeau, Sid Haig, Dee Wallace, Bill Moseley, Barbara Crampton, Tony Todd, Debbie Rochon, Tiffany Shepis, Lloyd Kaufman, Kane Hodder, Gunnar Hansen, and SO. MUCH. MORE. I haven’t seen a horror cast like this since Wishmaster (1997), which had Robert Englund, Angus Scrimm, Hodder, Todd, and a few other fun surprises. Death House has been touted as The Expendables of horror, and it lives up to that comparison handedly. The question is, is a loaded cast of fan favorite horror stars enough to lift Death House past a script that is overly convoluted and a bit of a mess?
In short: no. It’s a pleasure to see Hansen in an all-too brief appearance, Kaufman is absolutely hysterical with what little screen time he has (no surprise, being the owner of Troma), and Hodder is, quite simply, a beast. Death House is just the kind of vehicle Hodder needs to show fans that his acting skills range beyond being a silent, lumbering monster. He can also scare the hell out of you with dialogue. The line itself may be silly, but if Hodder ever said to me, “I will fuck you in Hell”, I can guarantee you my butt would pucker. Hodder is a rampaging force of fury and death, and fans will be thrilled to see him ripping out spines without a mask. It’s also a bloody joy to see Dee Wallace on screen again, as well as a resurgent Crampton, (both of whom are great in their roles), but all of that star power begins to wear off, and quickly, mostly because very little is actually done with the cast. Now I get it, there are things like budget and schedule restrictions, and I’m impressed with Smith’s ability to have acquired such a group, but so few of them really get that great “hero moment”. In a film like Death House, which spills enough blood to account for the Red Sea, it’s odd that NONE OF these stars are given a memorable end in the film. In fact, most if not all, are knocked off off-screen. And even many of the villains, who are given great backstories, such as Crau (Michael Berryman), don’t, in the end, end up doing much of anything. The concept of Death House sets up the possibility for something like The Running Man, which sets up a variety of unique villains hunting down Arnold Schwarzenegger, but we get nothing of the kind in Death House. Granted, this is only a small issue with Death House, and an easily forgivable one, but an odd decision nonetheless. Each of these actors/actresses have their fan bases, and many will be disappointed that a lot of these stars come and go so fast you’ll hardly know they were even there. I just wonder if Smith tried to fit so many beloved genre stars into the film, that he wasn’t able to give most of them enough time to have a memorable impact on Death House as a whole.
What is interesting though is how the dynamics are set up within Death House. Actress Cortney Palm has begun to build a career in horror (most notably Zombeavers), and while I can’t say if she’ll be one of the next great “Scream Queens” or not, she could very well be on her way. That being said, it’s fascinating to note that the “heroes” in the film are mostly female. Palm, along with Crampton and Wallace, have all been the leading lady in horror before, and have faced a variety of monsters. Here, in Death House, a lot of those same stars who have played tormenters in the genre, act as the evil in the film. Smith has essentially taken the “good” from the genre, and pitted them against the “evil”. Which makes sense, seeing as how the timeless theme of good vs evil plays a major role in the events of Death House. Either way, the cast alone and the way in which they are divided up in their usual roles speaks to a celebration of these vets in horror, as well as the emergence of the next generation of horror stardom. Barbara Crampton declaring to Palm “girl power” and high-fiving her is just the cherry on top for empowerment of women in horror represented by the casting.
There is no denying that Death House is an ode to horror fans everywhere. Aside from the cast, Death House is filled with references to genre films, whether it be Rochon as a Leatherface knockoff called “Letherlace”, or shots which remind me of the hooks digging into Andrew Robinson’s back in Hellraiser. And of course the loads of over-the-top gore that films like this live on. On its surface, Death House is like a violent 80’s action film with some extreme horror mixed in. Harrison dares to see if he can tire his audience out with one incredibly gory effect after the other, and I mean that in the best possible way. The graphic nature of the film may be too much for fans of the queasy variety, but gorehounds will applaud the work of Smith’s FX team, as Death House consistently delivers imagery which shocks and astounds.
Where Death House seems to go wrong is with the exact theme that makes the casting so intriguing. Good vs evil. Heaven vs Hell. You get the idea. The set-up of the actual Death House closely resembles the same structure as Dante’s Inferno, the first in Dante Alighieri’s epic poem trilogy, the Divine Comedy. Death House has roughly nine levels (circles of hell), each of which becomes filled with more and more “evil” inmates as you descend down. Also like Dante’s Inferno, our heroes have to go down, not up, and reach the core of Hell in order to actually escape it on the other side. It’s an interesting set-up, but results in a supernatural twist that is so convoluted, that Death House collapses in on itself without enough support to hold up the plot. At first glance, Death House sounds like an ultra-gory tribute to grindhouse horror and prison films of the 80s. I have no issue with Smith trying to incorporate a deeper message of good not being able to exist without evil, I understand the desire to offer something more profound, but in this critic’s opinion, the ideological tone comes at the detriment of what is, on the other end, a fun B-horror concept that works better on a simplified level.
Again, I respect and encourage Smith’s ambition, but with an already inflated cast of horror stars that the director wants to give screen time to, and a script that calls for major set pieces, amounts of gore, and kickass action, there is just too much going on to also shove in metaphysical ideas about the world, as well as nonsensical experiments and a confusing sub-plot involving “victims”. Death House already poses so many more questions than it successfully answers, that by ending on one last odd twist, viewers are left with their faces scrunched, wondering what the hell just happened. It’s not that what Smith is trying to say with Death House becomes lost on the audience, but more so that there are so many ideas floating around the film, with little to no logical explanation, that we’re taken out of what is meant to be a cheesy action-horror flick and forced into trying to fit a complicated puzzle together without all of the pieces.
Most disappointing of all is that, even though Death House shouts a love for horror from the top of Bald Mountain (look it up), the film ends on a rather tame, anti-climactic note without our heroes doing much of anything. With concepts like this, audiences generally wish to see the heroes deliver a gritty fate to the villains, but that isn’t quite what we get. Ultimately, Death House is like going to one of those overnight parties at a museum: It sounds like a riot, it’s cool to see some of your favorite people on display, but there’s a two-drink minimum. Death House may miss a lot of opportunities and lose its audience at times, but as a love letter to the heroes and villains fans have grown up with thanks to the determination of Smith and his outstanding cast, Death House should grow into cult status over time and will be worth the occasional nostalgic revisit.
Death House is now available on VOD.
By Matt Konopka