Long time no postings I know. Excuses? Mostly work, with a soupcon of personal crap getting in the way. And also stymied by having a bunch of things I want to write about and never too certain which one I should embark on first! Anyway, I’ve been hunting this one down for a little while, as there has been a fair bit of buzz about it, and eventually managed to grab a copy on a R1 DVD. I couldn’t tell you the last time I actually imported from the USA! Anyway, let’s see what it is all about shall we?
“House in the Alley” opens up with a particularly messy miscarriage in the home of Thao (Thanh Van Ngo) and Thranh (Son Bao Tran). The midwife struggle to get there in the middle of a typhoon, and no doctor is available. The fallout is somewhat predictable. Thao enters a period of depression, and the relationship of the couple isn’t helped by a few extra factors. Thanh is additionally struggling with the failure of the family business and with the pressures put upon him by his harridan of a Mother who also happens to be his boss. They also are living in a house that is in desperate need of being renovated (it was a present from Thanh’s family, but other than a lovely kitchen, the rest of the place is somewhat run down). Thao refuses to get their dead child buried, insisting on keeping the tiny coffin in their bedroom. All these pressures on their relationship would be enough to test most, but there are also strange and spooky noises going on to add to the tension. Their relationship continues to deteriorate, and Thao’s mental state starts to deteriorate to a point where she physically acts in a self destructive and aggressive manner towards her husband. Question is, are the events being given additional pressure from the interference of supernatural forces, say from an unborn child or maybe other spirits connected to the house?
This movie got a lot of buzz as it was advertised as Vietnam’s first horror movie. Which it isn’t. Not even close. However, it is maybe the first Vietnam-produced horror themed film to get some kind of international distribution deal. And to be perfectly honest with you dear reader, whilst the film did do really well at the local box-office, it is fairly hard to see what the fuss was all about.
Visually it is pretty good, with nice production values and the house of the couple providing an interesting environment. Thanh Van Ngo is not just impossibly beautiful, but also a more than competent actress who descends into madness quite nicely. Son Bao Tran is also perfectly adequate, even if his main skill appears to be falling from a few feet occasionally. He isn’t helped by his character alternating between utter wimp and sometimes class A d***. The film moves along at a decent pace and there is a fairly good pervading air of fear about the piece.
Sadly, the film fails as a horror movie. In fact, I do wonder if this was actually quite a different film in its original conception. The real work is done around the post partum depression suffered by Thao, and the struggle of her fundamentally good husband to deal with it along with all the other pressures of life. The actually spooky ghost stuff? Well it hardly makes an appearance. In fact, there is a whole epilogue to the movie which seems to suggest that their house was being haunted by a bunch of naughty orphan ghosts who dies in a fire, which feels tacked on at best. Other than Thao going batshit crazy in the last 15 minutes, there isn’t really anything to get the old adrenaline racing.
Don’t get me wrong. I love a slow burner. And I much prefer something that suggests horror than seeing gallons of blood everywhere (also Thanh deserves husband of the year after one particular thing Thao does to him late on). But the film is not just unbalanced, but the supernatural element seems not only underdeveloped, but frankly just unnecessary. The rub is, that without that element, what we have is a fairly decent if unspectacular human drama.
There is also the question of Thanh and the drama around his work problems. They are never really explained, and the whole “I need to be at work” issue seems somewhat moot as a later scene suggests that the office/factory is only 2 minutes away. Other things like Thao wanting to visit her unseen mother are never really addressed either. Again, it has the feeling of a film where the supernatural has been shoehorned in, at the expense of other dramatic and storytelling scenes.
It’s a decent enough movie. I have watched much worse and the last 15 minutes does provide some kind of pay off. It just doesn’t work sufficiently as what it is advertised as. It would never appeal to a western horror audience, but doesn’t have sufficient atmosphere to be placed up there with the great eastern ghost stories. Mildly recommended only because it does have a certain amount going for it (the general human drama and if I might be so shallow, Thanh Van Ngo is VERY easy on the eye), and that it isn’t a horrible mess.