Making its world premiere at Fantasia International Film Festival, Our House is the feature debut of director Anthony Scott Burns, who made the standout short “Father’s Day” in the hit-and-miss horror anthology Holidays. There, he showed a shrewd restraint and a skill for brewing suspense. Here, he offers a clumsy haunted house tale that’ll like bore more hardened horror fans.
Ethan (Thomas Mann) is a young inventor on the verge of a major breakthrough. He’s working on a machine that would create energy through waves, think wifi for electricity. But his development on this project is derailed when his parents die in a freak accident, leaving him to care for his teen brother Matt (Percy Hynes White) and kid sister Becca (Kate Moyer). One day Ethan squirrels away a few hours for himself and turns on his dust-covered device. While it does not ignite his test lightbulb, it does spark a greater change in the house. Both Becca and Matt begin to experience paranormal activity that suggests their parents’ ghosts watch over them. Realizing his device has the accidental ability to be an amplifier for the dead, Ethan tries to increase its power hoping to bring his parents back in the flesh. But theirs are not the only spirits lingering in the house. And the others aren’t as friendly.
This premise might sound familiar to Fantasia devotees. Our House is a remake of Matt Osterman’s Phasma Ex Machina (A.K.A. Ghost From The Machine), a microbudget horror movie that premiered at the festival in 2010. Screenwriter Nate Parker has made some notable changes to the original, genderswapping the youngest sibling and revising the backstory of the widower-next-door. But the most apparent difference is in the budget.
Produced by IFC Midnight, Our House doesn’t suffer from the subpar digital look of its inspiration, instead boasting a crisp focus that horror fans have come to expect thanks to the flood of sleek small-budget fare coming from Blumhouse Productions and its rivals. Instead of no-name actors, Our House has young stars, like The Gifted’s Percy Hynes White, Me, Earl, And the Dying Girl’s Thomas Mann, and Transformers: Age of Extinction’s Nicola Peltz playing Ethan’s girlfriend Hannah. And rather than flesh and blood performers lurking in the background behind unsuspecting heroes, there are inky specters who cast chilling silhouettes for jump scares. Essentially, this is a predictably glossier studio version of the indie original.
There’s no shame in that. It’s just a shame that Our House isn’t all that scary or original. The paranormal activity begins with a string of tropes: slinking shadows, an ominous message scribbled on a mirror, a whisper in the dark that only a child can hear. I begrudge none of this, as these tropes are easy shorthand to set the stage for Our House’s big scares. But when those too are all-too-familiar, I got bored. The silhouette on a shower curtain. The doll that’s cute but also creepy and clearly tied to a dead child. A girl found facing a corner like in the climax of The Blair Witch Project. Instead of a fresh and frightening story, Our House becomes a cluttered collection of horror iconography.
Maybe this could be forgiven if it weren’t for a sloppy script. Though not particularly charismatic, Mann’s an adequate leading man, playing grief, incredulity, and parental vexation with a muted capability. But it’s White and Moyer whose performances give a real wallop. His eyes ringed in dark circles, his brow furrowed over a pale face, White projects the pain of their parents’ death with a scorching intensity. Like many a menaced moppet who’s come before her, Moyer is adorable, then unnerving as Becca softly translates the whispers of the dead for her brothers. But what really sells these three as a family is her playfulness and fury. One moment, she’s the giddy little sister eager to help make dinner or work on her brother’s weird ghost-making device. The next, her eyes are narrowed, her shoulders hunched in anger because she’s certain someone was spying on her. When she accuses Matt, he storms out of the room too fed up to defend himself as Ethan looks on helpless and exasperated. Just like that, the dynamic of this family is deftly established.
It’s when the script leaves the family that things get sloppy. Tertiary characters are hastily introduced and oft abandoned, like the kindly store owner who employs Ethan, the caring neighbor who pops up only to be a convenient fount of exposition, Matt’s buddy whose sole purpose is to get spooked yet say nothing of his experience, and Ethan’s girlfriend who exists to be a pretty sounding board for his speculation about the powers of the machine. In a movie so focused on the three siblings, such slapdash scenes stand out and spoil its could-be claustrophobic intimacy. Then, the finale offers its own frustrations with an anticlimactic solution and a smattering of questions left unanswered.
This is at best a mediocre horror movie. The story makes sense enough. The performances are serviceable to good. The pacing is uneven, but it’s a lean 90-minutes. It’ll likely be a bit of a snooze to horror connoisseurs. However, as I watched, I realized there is an audience that might well relish this slightly creepy tale of kids in paranormal peril. Kids.
Our House is like Are You Afraid of the Dark? minus the camp appeal. There’s no blood or gore. No sex or nudity. But there are children in ghostly, ghastly danger, a (young) adult who initially refuses to believe them, and a scary story that’s spooky without being horrifying. The only caution in its PG-13 rating is for “terror and some thematic content.” Without major spoilers, I suspect the content referred to is the unspoken fate of the ghost girl tied to the aforementioned doll. Basically, if you’re looking for something to scare you witless, look elsewhere. But if you want something suitably scary for the burgeoning young horror fan in your life, microwave the popcorn and cuddle up for Our House. After all, the family that’s scared together, stays together.
Our House hits theaters, VOD, and digital platforms on July 27th.