The House of Screaming Death (2017) Pat the Bull Films & Lightbeam Productions
Directed by: Troy Dennison, Rebecca Harris-Smith, David Hastings, Alex Bourne
A collaborative group of fright-filmmakers have pulled together and created a new Midlands made horror anthology – The House of Screaming Death – and, in a Midlands Movies first, we review this local horror feature with two (!) of our writers in conversation.
Taking a slightly longer format than before, Editor Mike Sales speaks to site feature writer Marek Zacharkiw about these multiple tales of terror in a collaborative format akin to the film itself.
To set the scene, The House of Screaming Death utilises the horror staple of an anthology film set around the same location, in this case it’s another recognisable feature of the genre – that of a spooky location – which is a great concept (not to mention realistic in terms of scope and budget for an indie production - Marek). Here it allows this group of filmmakers to display their individual talents while linking the tales together using themes of time, personal journeys and tackling the ‘ghosts’ of the past. Each of the 5 directors (4 tales plus the director of the wraparound sequence) brings their horror-tinged stories to screen using new occupants as well as both the familiar and the unknown.
The film opens with a suitably gothic red ghoulish font reminiscent of classic Hammer Horror and we are then introduced to Ian McNeice (Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls) as the Architect. He’s the perfect foil to deliver an eerie performance as he introduces each segment. There’s also a great score from Matthew Calvert which mixes a dash of the recent Stranger Things with urgent strings to create a pumping tension at the beginning. And with that, Marek and I got stuck into the film…
MAREK: I have to say the idea of the film really appeals to me and I think this is in part because the film makers have presented it in a way reminiscent of the older Amicus and Hammer horror anthologies which I am a fan of. The opening and casting of Ian McNiece as The Architect, also lends the film a certain air of gravitas in regards to the professionalism of the picture, by which I mean you do not often get such recognisable faces in these smaller productions. Although the actual story introductions were somewhat lacking I felt.
MIKE: Absolutely. Without putting a downer on so early in the proceedings, the first story was “The Lady in Grey” from Troy Dennison but it was hard to work out any of the story names as McNeice doesn’t give the audience the titles. There’s only a date – in this case 1943 – so I thought a name card could help.
MAREK: I fully agree here simply because it primes us as a viewer and to be honest I feel it helps audiences get into the mindset or world of the unfolding story. “The Lady in Grey” to me came across almost as an attempt to visualise an Edgar Allen Poe story but unfortunately fell short for me as the script and pacing just did not have enough to hold my attention throughout. However I did feel that the concept fit perfectly into the location and credit must be applied for how the crew brought that time period to life.
MIKE: Yeah, the tale had great costumes and the rooms of the house had great set/prop design with suitably old fashioned sets for the varying time periods.
MAREK: As we see across all genres, the choice of an interesting location, and particularly in this case its incorporation into the story, can really help the filmmaker make the most of limited production budgets but in this opening segment I feel that it was a missed opportunity. .
MIKE: Agreed. The story is straightforward and the lighting was good. I was a bit unsure of starting the film with a monologue sequence and tension was only created by the music and not particularly the pacing or editing.
MAREK: I think that explains the issues perfectly, it was difficult to get into as a starting point (for the whole anthology) due to the narrative choice which relied too much on a script that while functional was not simply not engaging enough to hold my sole attention.
MIKE: Multiple speeds of pacing keep interest up but the one-note speed in this segment didn’t reflect the drama being described.
MIKE: The second tale was Rebecca Harris-Smith’s ‘The Witch in the Mirror’ set in 1934 and then 1974. As I mentioned, it was now 18 minutes before any dialogue had been delivered which made me think the order of tales could be reversed.
MAREK: After quite an intriguing start I found this one a little confusing in terms of tone although the opening aesthetics, in particular the costumes, did grab my attention.
MIKE: I loved the steampunk-esque plague masks of the necromancers. The main couple’s real-life argument in another room heard by the guests was a great parallel twist on hearing ghostly sounds through the walls.
MAREK: Exactly and it is in this manner that I hoped the story and style would develop. Although I felt the pacing was a bit disjointed and while, again, the script was functional that every time it built up momentum it became bogged down in the minutiae of everyday conversation.
MIKE: A well-lit dinner meal used creepy candles as we see a couple spend a night in the inherited house. I enjoyed the nods to ‘typically’ horror set ups, again harking back to their retro influences.
MAREK: See for me this was one of the areas that missed where the real interest of the story lay, rather than uninteresting bickering of some confusing characters, confusing in the sense of motivation, I wanted to discover more about the supernatural.
MIKE: I found the structure a little strange as we flash-forward at the story’s start and then at the table hear a story from the past. I kept wondering, as the film switches time periods anyway, which date are we on now? But the reversal (mirrored, if you will) ending nicely linked up the two time periods which clarified the crossover.
MIKE: So we move on to the third story titled ‘The Vampyre’ from Dave Hastings set in 1888.
MAREK: For me this was the highlight of the anthology, a strong concept that was well delivered and engaging throughout.
MIKE: This segment had my favourite characters for me. The vicar delivered a good performance and enjoyed the stereotypically burly locals nonplussed by the city outsider and the central villain of the segment as well.
MAREK: I fully agree, it knew what it wanted to achieve and set the characters out to deliver that with a few nods to the past.
MIKE: A pub scene was notably quiet with no background “hum” and also no score. It was like the audio was missing rather than a stylistic choice. The silence was unnatural but not in a supernatural way.
MAREK: Sadly this appears to have been a theme that frequently reoccurred, to a greater or lesser extent, throughout and did make a difference taking you out of the created world although thankfully this segment was strong enough for me to manage to survive.
MIKE: There were a few scenes in the forest that were really dark and possibly under-lit but it certainly kept it realistic for the time period it was set in.
MAREK: Now I think that final part you mentioned is key but we also need to remember that this story utilised the outdoors a lot more as well as shadows to perhaps hold the mystery a little longer in regards to our villain and I felt this was handled very well in what must have been some difficult shooting conditions regarding lighting.
MAREK: For the final, we are whisked to 2017 (by way of 2015) for the ‘The Diabolique’ by Alex Bourne.
MIKE: Here, we have a lady investigating the disappearance of her brother which leads her to the house.
MAREK: Like the previous segment I thought this was a strong, engaging concept and serves the additional purpose to bring us back to present day.
MIKE: Again, classic horror tropes like a ‘haunted’ doll and cult like images help cement the anthology’s love of the past and this tale wears it’s influences on its sleeve which will attract the fans of the that genre to it all the more.
MAREK: Although everyone deserves credit, perhaps this segment is the best acted out of them all and it helps bring it together.
MIKE: Agreed. It had the best pacing of the sequences for me too and the set of shorts ended on a high note as the tempo had really sped up by now.
MIKE: So in conclusion, what were your favourite parts of the film and which did you think needed improving?
MAREK: I felt the final two stories were undoubtedly the strongest, with ‘The Vampyre’ being my favourite. However I have to say that I do worry that the overall story order is wrong and certain viewers will not stick with it.
MIKE: For me, and I think I’ve mentioned it in so many reviews now that both independents and mainstream blockbusters have a current trend to make everything 2 hours plus, no matter what the content.
MAREK: Exactly and while this film at around two hours might seem like it would break down into four 30 minute episodes it does not play out that way in terms of an even split, and perhaps was overly ambitious based on the resources.
MIKE: Yeah, I sadly feel it’s also magnified by a lower budget. If resources like locations, money and some technical aspects are limited then it makes sense to me that these limitations could be extended to the length. A short, punchy, tightly-edited film often has more impact. In comparison, the recent mainstream release XX had 4 stories coming in at 80 minutes.
MAREK: Sometimes less is more but perhaps with a little tighter editing and post-production many of these qualms can be answered and all of a sudden it becomes a much more enjoyable film.
MIKE: Maybe a re-ordering of the tales would have helped so as to draw the viewer into the exciting beginning of tale 2 before the more mournful reflective narration of Story 1.
MAREK: Exactly, and I think this is perhaps where I am doing a disservice to the opening story but to me it does not set the anthology off on an engaging note and its sparse, bleak tone then permeates to the viewer making for a dry and unfortunately slow start.
MIKE: There’s definitely much more to recommend it than the few areas of improvement we’ve discussed and the anthology format works well for tales of camp-fire horror.
MAREK: Certainly and I think it is just a few minor tweaks required which will perhaps even come as the experienced directors continue their edits. There are of course plenty of positives to take from this and enjoyment to be had, particularly from the last two stories.
So ultimately House of Screaming Death is a retro-infused horror collection that it is more Inside No.9 than Amicus/Hammer but there is a lot of promise and clear genre knowledge behind the camera. One area which anthology films often get wrong but was perfect in this, was the wraparound story which worked exceptionally well and deserves credit. And with 4 exciting directors honing their craft both of us are looking forward to the next terrific tell-tale terrors they have to offer.
Midlands Movies Mike & Marek
Find out more about the film and its release at the Official Website: http://onabeamoflight.wixsite.com/screamingdeath/the-stories