[All images courtesy Alon Cohen/ IFC Films]
A few days ago, I set myself a challenge for the end of 2017, inspired by Scott Weinberg’s Best Horror Movies of 2017 (So Far) article on Thrillist. Before January 1, 2018, I’d watch as many of the 30 listed movies as I could. Not counting movies I’ve already seen (grand total of six), that left a whopping 24 titles to go! While I’ve already seen Numbers 28 (The Void) and 30 (Cult of Chucky), my first review for the challenge is House on Willow Street.
House on Willow Street (2016)
Directed by Alastair Orr
Written by Catherine Blackman, Jonathan Jordaan, Alastair Orr
An IFC Midnight release
Four people plot a kidnapping in a dingy, dimly lit warehouse. Hazel (Sharna Vinson) is clearly in charge of the group. She insists that six weeks more than enough time to plan and flawlessly execute the kidnapping of a young woman named Katherine (Carolyn Burcher).
The ransom Katherine’s diamond merchant father exchanges for her return will solve all their individual problems. Which, for Hazel’s boyfriend Ade (Steven Ward) includes a need to skip town before going on trial for involuntary manslaughter of his brother (Dimitri Belianis).
Things go south as soon as the group arrives at the isolated home of their target. Recovering a ransom is soon the least of their concerns as each thief is relentlessly haunted (and hunted) by their pasts – and a not-so-helpless Katherine.
House on Willow Street, a 2016 South African heist/horror mashup directed by Alistair Orr, sets up an intriguing mystery in suitably creepy settings. In each of the main locations – the titular house, the kidnapper’s lair, and the rural road between them – Orr and his entire crew create a sustained mood of dread. When jump scares are used, they’re effective, as is the use of negative space to keep the viewer on edge.
Unfortunately, the many, many plot elements crammed into Willow Street’s one hour and thirty minute run time ultimately work against those positives. For me, these discordant threads never transformed into an effective whole.
While the kidnapping goes according to plan, Ade and his cousin James (Gustav Gerderner) go back to the house on Hazel’s orders because Katherine’s parents won’t answer the phone. The pair discovers a couple brutally murdered in their bed, along with a pair of dead priests (Ashish Gangapersad and Jonathan Taylor)impaled in the basement.
Then came the segment that exhausted my patience with this movie.
After discovering all the dead bodies, James and Ade grabbed a couple videotapes on their way out, providing the gang (and us) with the following backstory tsunami.
*All the previous tenants of the house were coping with some form of loss and grief.
*Every tenant of the house went mad and slaughtered their families in various bloody ways
*Weird symbols on the basement had something to do with the murders.
*Katherine just happens to be the person relating this information. We see the symbols from the basement carved into her body as she confesses to falling under the house’s influence.
The second conveniently stolen video tape features a previously unknown couple listening to the previously seen priests explaining why the house is so evil. Turns out it’s all because Willow Street is super far away from a super secret book written by God and kept in the Vatican.
As Gareth Jones at DreadCentral.com notes, “Orr appears to be throwing just about everything he can at the wall and merely praying that something sticks. Hell, there’s even an impending apocalypse and ghostly elements to the story. Why not, eh?!”
As I watched House on Willow Street, I found myself wishing that the movie had concentrated on one of these stories (the symbols in the house, Hazel’s story, the previous tenants, the Super Secret Book Written By God) and developed it while staying in one location. At the end, House on Willow Street is a frustrating view experience; a movie with many interesting ideas that end up canceling each other out.
Two minor items.
-Wouldn’t a house so far out in the country, so distant from any real neighborhood be on a Road, a Rural Route, or County Highway (at least in the US)? Willow Street implies an urban (or suburban) address, not an isolated dwelling at the end of a glorified dirt road out in the middle of nowhere.
-Hazel insists the kidnapping must be planned to perfection with precise timing. But when their van rolls up to the house, she has to gives James and Ade directions, “you go to the front, you to the back.” If this was such a well-planned operation, would every member of the gang already know their roles and where to enter the house?
House on Willow Street is distributed by IFC Midnight and is currently available on Netflix, Amazon, iTunes, and Vudu.