My first new movie of 2018 is a Netflix Original, mostly because between moving house and being ill, I haven’t managed to get to the cinema to see any Oscar Bait in January. OPEN HOUSE has a lot we’ve seen before: dead dads, isolated locales with no phone signal, slightly off locals with vague yet specific warnings (“the quiet can get awful loud!”) and glimpses of weird things going on just outside your field of vision. There’s even a couple of scenes when characters go into a basement alone when the lights don’t work, because of course there are.
Following the sudden, tragic death of his dad, Logan (Dylan Minnette) and his mum Naomi (Piercey Dalton) take a sabbatical at her sister’s house for sale in the country, only having to clear out for the occasional “open house” day for prospective buyers. Try as they might to forget their troubles, their troubles follow them on vacation, as something else may have also done…
The house of the title is a ridiculously spacious, handsome building with plenty of room for things to go wrong. You don’t quite know from what direction the wrongness is going to come from, but you know it’s coming. Some of my favourite horrors/suspense films of the last few years (THE GIFT, HUSH, DON’T BREATHE: none of which does this film hold a temperamental match to) have made the very most of the scare potential of an ordinary domestic setting. It’s amazing how scary just a house can be with the right lighting, camera angles and Foley artistry. The previous sentence is true for a movie that does all of this well.
“You ever thought about how weird open houses are?” Well, for any non-Americans out there (including yours truly) I reckon the answer is yes, and it’s why we don’t do them. This is a much scarier story for a Brit where the concept is completely alien. It’s the mundanity of the horror here that could have made it special, made it last in the mind. Individual scares – bumps, lights cutting out, slamming doors and whip-pans aren’t all that frightening on their own, but it gains tension and traction when the pieces fall into place and you realise that the threat will remain nameless but all-too-real. Sadly, this is only the last ten minutes of the movie, not really enough to justify having to sit through the whole thing.
It’s difficult to get past the nagging feeling that Logan and Naomi wouldn’t go through half the torment if she just took shorter showers, and that she might feel a bit less vulnerable if she got the basement light fixed and put on something more than a towel to restart the pilot light. But hey, if real-world logic always applies to horror movies then we wouldn’t have horror movies.
Hamstrung as they are by how characters in horror movies are supposed to act, these are two really strong lead performances, Dalton and Minnette utterly believable as mother and son trying to overcome trauma. They play off each other well, the supporting cast are appropriately bizarre and off-putting, but the film as a whole comes across as more competent than memorable, far from a horror highlight this early in the year. It’s fine, but aside from the acting it’s little more. SSP