Director: Le-Van Kiet
Writer: Le-Van Kiet
Producer: Dan Trong Tran
Cast: Veronica Ngo, Son Bao Tran, Van Hai Bui
Running Time: 93 min.
By Kyle Warner
It’s been my experience that some of the finest horror films work so well because they build their dread and terror by taking their time, letting the scares linger, allowing the horror to slowly bubble over. An in-your-face horror film like Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo: The Iron Man is a visceral thrill but a slow-burn horror tale like Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse (aka Kairo) hits on a more psychological level (I love both films, by the way). Thing is, when a slow-burn horror film misses, it can be accused of being boring by more than just the general audiences… And I think even the most hardcore of horror fans will find House in the Alley rather dull and drawn out.
House in the Alley is a Vietnamese horror movie about a wife who’s going crazy and a husband who keeps falling off the roof every 20-30 minutes. There’s more to the movie than that, but not much more. After a bloody childbirth results in a stillborn baby, wife Thao (The Rebel‘s Veronica Ngo) is beside herself with grief. She won’t allow the baby to be buried, instead keeping the little coffin inside the master bedroom of their dreary, leaky house. Her husband Thanh (Son Bao Tran) is upset, too, but he’s ready to move on and try again. Thanh is also dealing with difficulties at work and a terribly unsympathetic mother (who’s also his boss), so coming home to a depressed and sometimes irrational wife isn’t easy for him. But Thao’s not just depressed, she’s apparently losing her mind. She confesses to a friend that she often thinks about chopping her husband into pieces. Hubby Thanh doesn’t pick up on any of this—he thinks the best way to coax his wife out of her depression is sexy fun time, an activity that’s almost constantly on his mind.
Add to the marital discord some creepy sounds, ghostly children on the patio, and a bouncing ball with no owner, and you get a supernatural ghost story about a dying marriage and severe postpartum depression. The supernatural happenings seem like an afterthought, though—a theory pretty much confirmed when the film tacks on an answer to the hauntings in the finale that seems to belong to a different story altogether. Writer/director Le-Van Kiet (Gentle) goes for the classics with spooky stains, giggling ghost children, the sound of running footsteps in an empty house, and black cats abruptly crossing our path (for what it’s worth, the cat gave me a jump).
House in the Alley is not original in its scares and nor is it terribly effective in how it delivers them. Le-Van Kiet’s film is almost without form, fading from one scene to the next without much in the way of buildup. The characters also suffer from behaving stupid under the circumstances (something that’s common in horror, to be fair). Husband Thanh wanders his house in the middle of the night to find the source of the sounds he keeps hearing. In his searches, he inevitably finds himself hanging from the side of his house, and then falls to the ground below. This happens three times, I think. It’s a peculiar thing to keep revisiting. Also, later in the film when the events have reached their boiling point, a character actually thinks that the best place to hide from someone with an axe is behind a clear glass window. Surprise! That axe is coming through the window with no problem at all. You big dummy.
I feel like the filmmakers could’ve done more with the fact that there’s a dead baby’s coffin watching over husband and wife in bed—that’s original imagery, if nothing else—but the film’s not terribly interested in making a mark visually. House in the Alley does seem to have something in mind regarding women’s roles in modern Vietnam, though. The wife Thao is expected to get over it, to move on and please her overworked husband. Even her mother-in-law wants to remind Thao of her place in the marriage. That Thao’s depression is viewed so dispassionately is sometimes troubling, and it certainly doesn’t help us like her husband any better, nor make us fear for his well-being. Without the haunting aspects of the film, Thao’s crazy behavior later in the film could almost be seen as an ugly depiction of a ‘hysterical’ woman. The supernatural justifies her behavior, and in doing so saves House in the Alley from being a nasty, dispassionate piece of work. One thing I did enjoy was the gender swap of horror situations. Often when a spouse goes mad in horror cinema, it’s the husband that’s threatening to the wife (The Shining, for example). Here, it’s the wife whose behavior is threatening to the husband, and that makes for a few interesting scenes.
When a movie review uses the phrase “deliberately paced,” most readers probably think that’s critic-talk for “boring.” I really don’t want to call House in the Alley a boring film but… I do think the movie tests the audience’s patience too often without delivering enough of the goods to make it worth your time.
Kyle Warner’s Rating: 4.5/10