House Of Salem


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

House Of Salem
"It's the introspective nature of the drama that makes the film genuinely sinister, and its silences are as effective as its frantic action scenes."

Occult horror always presents a challenge for filmmakers. Although the subgenre has an ongoing appeal, there have been very few successes over the years compared to the number of floundering attempts. Some make it work for a certain set of viewers by piling on the gore, but to play it straight, to make it intellectually satisfying, takes real skill, and that's what makes this offering from James Crow such a treat.

Although superficially it resembles the recent From A House On Willow Street - kidnappers get more than they bargained for when they pick a troubled target - the tone of this film is very different. It's a taut little thriller that keeps some of its twists in reserve and manages to maintain its grip even after the rules by which its characters understood the world have gone out of the window. With framing and lighting choices that echo the best of its predecessors, it sets up a world in which it's easy to suspend disbelief or, at least, to accept that the characters would do so.

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Debut actor Liam Kelly plays Josh, a boy whose domestic situation seems mysteriously askew even before we know much about it. He suffers from nightmares, something which being abducted by a gang of criminals in clown masks presumably isn't going to help with. The gang, who quickly deposit him in a safehouse, are a motley crew, led by the cool-headed and charismatic but intermittently thuggish Jacob (Les Mills, also acting for the first time and making quite an impression). For reasons not immediately clear he has brought along his daughter Anna (Jessica Arterton), which adds to his worries as he tries to keep the rest of the gang from getting ideas about her - especially teenager Jack (Jack Brett Anderson). He wants to keep everybody calm until the client arrives to complete the deal. But as they explore the house and discover a disturbing box of videotapes in the basement, the gang begin to suspect that the deal isn't going to go down the way they'd expected.

In a film with only one main female character, it's not surprising to Anna moves to the fore, developing increasing sympathy for Josh. There are hints that her feelings stem from a complicated early childhood, and she and Josh seem to share a sensitivity towards the supernatural, one of several narrative devices which the film introduces as if it were just pulled out of the horror toybox when in fact it may have deeper foundations. The devil's in the details.

Crow's script reveals a great deal early on without giving anything away, so that when the pieces do begin to fit together there's an urge to rush to conclusions - the same thought process that underscores the appeal of occultism. The pacing of the film is assured. A long middle section whilst the gang are waiting in the house reveals their frustration, using it to develop tension, without frustrating the viewer. A succession of smaller mysteries are stacked within the larger one so that there's always something to be curious about, and their development also allows for key characters to reveal more of themselves.

Crow does a good job of balancing the natural behaviours of younger characters, such as hiding under the bed, with more mature dynamics, and very dark real world horrors are as pivotal as anything supernatural. It's the introspective nature of the drama that makes the film genuinely sinister, and its silences are as effective as its frantic action scenes. Pete Coleman's music rounds out a highly polished production. Seek it out.

Reviewed on: 22 Jun 2017
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Kidnappers become a child's unlikely protectors after finding out that they have been unwittingly set up to take part in a deadly game of human sacrifice.

Director: James Crow

Writer: James Crow

Starring: Jessica Arterton, Jack Brett Anderson, Liam Kelly, Robert Lowe, Les Mills

Year: 2016

Runtime: 105 minutes

Country: UK


Frightfest 2016

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