My notes on the South African supernatural drama From a House on Willow Street.
A team of kidnappers, more or less led by revenge-driven Hazel (Sharni Vinson), snatch Katherine (Carlyn Burchell) from the House on Willow Street, assuming that her wealthy family will pay a hefty ransom. However, it becomes obvious that the crooks haven’t understood the situation – at first, they wonder whether they haven’t rescued the numbed and spaced-out Katherine from an abusive home … and then they realise that everyone else in the house has recently been killed violently (and so, apart from anything else, won’t be able to cough up a ransom).
Stewart Hendler’s underrated Whisper was a clever mash-up of The Omen and the O. Henry short story ‘The Ransom of the Red Chief’, the source also for an episode in Tales of Halloween – South African writer-director Alastair Orr (The Unforgiving, Indigenous) comes third to the party with this concept, but takes off in a more extravagant, serpent-tentacle-tongued direction, playing for monster horror rather than suspense and black humour. The script – by Orr, Catherine Blakcman and Jonathan Jordaan – is full of dollops of flashback (to a badly-botched exorcism) and exposition (Hazel’s backstory ties in with the title house) but the film mostly lurches from one set-piece to the next as the demon inside Katherine takes out anyone who comes within reach.
Vinson, from You’re Next, puts up a decent fight to establish some sort of complicated character amid all the shouting and CGI-assisted gruesome death, but even she eventually gets lost in the grand guignol. In the much showier role, Burchell is a sinister presence but mostly gets nondescript staring and hissing to do. It has an oppressive, grimy, stylised look which locates it in a fantastical world – the setting isn’t specified, but would seem to be the US rather than SA – but also takes the bite out of its character stuff. It still isn’t quite a knock-out, but shows a great advance on Orr’s messy debut The Unforgiving – he’s clearly shaping up as a committed genre auteur, and has a ton of cool ideas even though he tends to splurge them at the screen rather than go for more concentrated effects.