Movie Review: "Death House" (2018)
The enemies of truly fair criticism are hype, overt enthusiasm, and the opinions of others. It’s easy to fall in love with a movie when you are a fanboy/girl, just as it’s easy to be swayed by the opinions of others (especially those you trust). With that being said, I knew it was going to be difficult to keep the right frame of mind for director B. Harrison Smith’s (Camp Dread) newest outing, the crazily stacked Death House.
Roll Call: Kane Hodder (Friday the 13th franchise), Tony Todd (Candyman franchise), Dee Wallace (Cujo, The Howling), Barbara Crampton (Reanimator), Bill Moseley (TCM2, The Devil’s Rejects) Michael Berryman (The Hills Have Eyes 1&2), Felissa Rose (Sleepaway Camp franchise), Adrienne Barbeau (Swamp Thing, Creepshow), Debbie Rochon (The Toxic Avenger), Sid Haig (Spider Baby, The Devil’s Rejects), Bill Oberst Jr. (Circus of the Dead), Lloyd Kaufman (MR. TROMA!!), Brinke Stevens (Slumber Party Massacre), R.A. Mihailoff (Leatherface: TCM3), Tiffany Shepis (Victor Crowley), Camille Keaton (I Spit on Your Grave!), Sean Whalen (The People Under the Stairs), Vernon Wells (Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior), Richard Speight Jr. (Supernatural), Tony Moran (1978’s Halloween), and Cortney Palm (Zombeavers)!!
That’s a loaded cast. That list doesn’t even cover every name involved; the pedigree on this film is unreal! You’d think that a cast of that magnitude making a movie billed as “THE EXPENDABLES OF HORROR” from an original idea that was the dream of the late, great Gunnar Hansen (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) would be an instant homerun, right? I mean, surely they’d kill it. Not so fast…
…FUCK, I hate having to say that.
I mustered up every bit of journalistic professionalism I could, handcuffed my inner fanboy (then hogtied him for good measure), and jumped in. I wasn’t prepared for what happened. So, for the sake of fairness, I am going to start with praise for what (and who) worked.
The practical SFX are spectacular. This is an unapologetic horror film with an eye on gore and shock that’ll keep the gorehounds happy. There’s no shortage of the red stuff or innards to go around. In particular, the scene with the wailing, skinless prisoners is a thing of absolute beauty. It’s wet, revolting, and morally repulsive- a skinned baby is eaten in graphic detail. It was, for me, the highlight of the film, and I understand why it was featured at the close of the trailer. What a selling point!
There are also a handful of one-liners that work pretty well, the most memorable being Sieg (Kane Hodder) telling Agent Boon (Cortney Palm) “I will fuck you in Hell”. That’s beautiful, man. Just beautiful.
Of course, there were those who made the most of their performances. Tony Todd was (as he always is) hypnotizing, even if the entire arc of his character and story don’t make a lot of sense yet. The exchange between R.A. Mihailoff and Kane Hodder was solid gold. Richard Speight Jr. showed why he’s so beloved by Supernatural fans. Barbara Crampton did a great job with some seriously wooden and exposition-heavy dialogue. Oh, yeah…that leads me to the issues…
The writing of Death House brings to mind one phrase: too many cooks in the kitchen. Whether those cooks come in the form of other writers (unlikely since Smith is listed as the only other writer besides Hansen) or just too many “how cool would this be?!” ideas, the end result is the same: it’s a goddamn mess. It’s an extremely ambitious and noble mess, but a mess nonetheless. There’s so much going on that just doesn’t make sense. Scenes blend into disconnected scenes with no rhyme or reason. You’re never sure whether it’s virtual reality or real life. It’s just jumbled and confusing. The premise is fantastic and thought-provoking, but the execution is sloppier than a McDonald’s burger with too much mayo.
The dialogue is a sticky point, too. Exposition is necessary; too much exposition comes off as inhuman and stilted. There were some great talents here hampered by bad lines and subpar delivery. I can’t even start on that shower scene…I just can’t. I’ve never had my excitement for a nice prolonged bout of wet nudity ruined by such dull performances. Longo and Palm should want that scene torched.
The VFX were the other killer for me. I love to be verbose in my descriptions, but I can’t think of a better word than cheap. I’ve seen better in the afternoon on a SyFy movie about hybrid snakedogs. Atrocious. Jarring. Destructive. That’s 3 more words.
And how many of those big names turned out to be mere cameos (Felissa Rose) or simply looking cool and doing nothing (Michael Berryman)? People feel cheated for good reason. How do you hype up as “The Expendables” and then give all the action to 4 or 5 actors?!
Still, for all that, there is a madcap quality to Death House that marks it as a definite 80’s homage. I can’t think of it as anything more than a glorified fan film, but I’ll be damned if it’s not made with love. It simply pains me to think of what could’ve been with more deftness in the writing and care given to the VFX.
Wait for it to come out on Netflix, Hulu, or Prime and try to enjoy it for all of the easter eggs and genre love. Maybe it will age well. I hope it does.
2.0 out of 5.0 stars