Over the past ten months, writers have put out countless articles, think pieces, tweets, and angry shouts to the heavens about the way the global pandemic has affected the horror community...
...Many of these articles can be found on this very website. As all of Halloween was more or less canceled, this author was saddened that he missed out on all night horrorthons, costumes, and (maybe most of all) the haunted house walkthroughs. For those who missed the jump scares, atmosphere, and creepy soundscapes of your local haunted house, La Casa manages to recreate the feeling of this Halloween staple.
Set in an actual haunted house (allegedly), the Chilean film La Casa unfolds mostly in real time. There is a brief preamble where VHS footage and local news reports tell the messed up history of the house in question. There was a doctor and his wife, they wanted a child, couldn’t conceive, dark arts were practiced, the baby was born deformed, the doctor killed everybody… real boilerplate haunted house stuff. And while this quick explanation of how the home came to be haunted seems familiar and even trite, I did not consider it a misstep for the film. One of my favorite things about haunted houses and walkthroughs is the familiar backstory. Every town in the world has a house with a story like this associated with it.
Once the stage is set, we dive into the story. Set in 1986, a patrol officer is dispatched to the casa to investigate a suspicious figure walking the grounds. The camera stays on this cop as he drives to the location, hears spooky noises, and walks the property. Tension mounts as the camera follows the investigation. Soon we see the figure of a bloody and shambling woman that escapes into the darkness. Our officer hears something inside the house and off we go.
For the next 60 some-odd minutes, the camera follows the cop as he wanders through the house, shining his flashlight on more things to scare us. Watching the film feels less like viewing a conventional horror film and more like observing an exercise from film school; but it is a very well executed exercise. There isn’t much in the way of characterization, arcs, plot reveals or twists, but what La Casa lacks in traditional film and storytelling techniques, it makes up for with the effective use of atmosphere and the steady building and releasing of tension.
Writer/director Jorge Olguín crafts a tidy film that appears to achieve all that it set out to. Following a character for the entire run of the movie without obvious cuts does remind us of 1917 or the Hitchcock classic Rope and it is difficult to watch this film without comparing it to those others. There is no question that this is nowhere near as elaborate or visually exciting as 1917. Nor is it as masterfully paced and performed as Rope. La Casa distinguishes itself from those other single shot films by being frenetic, messy, and wild. It is truly a run and gun type of production that takes full advantage of the resources it has available. The mostly quiet and controlled setting of the interior of a house is juxtaposed with energetic camera work, moody lighting, and the panicked performance of the film’s star, Gabriel Cañas.
In a more conventional outing, Cañas would be under a great deal of pressure to carry the film. He is, after all, the only character who is consistently on screen for the run of the movie. And if this was a conventional film, I’m not sure Cañas would be up to the task of giving audiences the range of human emotion necessary to hold their attention. Cañas is merely adequate at conveying anything beyond terror and confusion. But this is not a conventional film and that which is asked of him is not what we would normally see in any film. The police officer character exists to be an onscreen stand in for the audience. He is a blank slate--barely more than an abstraction--for whom viewers are meant to project themselves onto. For much of his character’s time on screen the camera is following him and what we are seeing is the back of his head (as in a video game). We are not meant to look at this character for the entirety of the film, rather, we are to look at the environment and feel what it would be like to stand next to him in this haunted house.
Late in the film, the story does seem to get away from Olguín and he seems to be compelled to offer more explanations than are needed. It’s a true shame and it almost seems as though our writer/director lost faith in the experiment in filmmaking that is playing out on screen. Additional post-credit scares also suggest a nervousness that the film just wasn’t enough for all those involved.
La Casa is a fun, low budget film that does a serviceable job telling a simple story while also being wonderfully effective at creating an experience. One could almost smell the peeling wallpaper and dank carpeting inside the haunted house. Is it worth revisiting? No, probably not. But it is without question worth watching once and remembering what it was like to walk through a haunted space that is not your own apartment.
La Casa comes to VOD January 19th and Blu-ray February 2nd from Dread.
By Mark Gonzales