I was recently lucky enough to get a chance to see a perfectly creepy haunted house movie called A House Is Not A Home. A House Is Not A Home is one of those films that I have wanted to see ever since I first heard about it last year. I have to admit that, usually, whenever I find myself looking forward to a movie, I sometimes dread actually watching it. There’s nothing worse than being disappointed by a film that fails to live up to your initial expectations. That’s why I’m happy to report that A House Is Not A Home not only lived up to those expectations but exceeded them.
A House Is Not A Home begins with a close-up of a bloodied hand. An obviously unstable man (played, with a truly unsettling intensity, by Richard Greico) calls 911 and tells the operator that “they’re all dead” and it’s all his fault. He then hangs up and, after shouting, “Take me!”, disappears into a bright white light. It’s an effective scene, largely because it’s played totally straight. You look at Greico and you have no doubt that something terrible truly has just happened and that not only was he responsible but he’s going to also be responsible for a lot more before the film reaches its conclusion. It’s the perfect way to open up a haunted house scene, one that hints at the promise that the film itself will soon fulfill.
Sometime after the man had vanished, the house is up for sale. Architect Ben (Gerald Webb) and his wife Linda (Diahnna Nicole Baker) are given a tour of the house by a real estate agent named Paul (Bill Cobbs). When we first see Paul, he seems like a nice old man. He’s friendly, he’s always smiling, and he comes across like he could probably sell snow in Canada. But, it quickly becomes obvious that there’s something a little bit off about Paul. By the time he finishes showing the house, you start to realize that his friendly smile seems to be more of a self-satisfied smirk.
Regardless, Ben and Linda buy the house and, along with their two teenagers, Ashley and Alex (Aurora Perrineau and Melvin Gregg), move in. From the minute that they unpack, strange things start to happen. Ashley is woken up in the middle of the night by mysterious laughter and, regardless of how many times she tries to move them, the same scary-looking dolls keep showing up on her dresser. (Seriously, those dolls were creepy!) Alex feels as if he’s being watched wherever he goes. Linda, a recovering alcoholic, starts to drink again and her attempts to give piano lessons are made difficult by the fact that the piano occasionally attacks her students. And Ben suddenly finds himself having nightmares and deliberately cutting himself so that the blood can hynotically drip down onto the kitchen table.
Even more frightening? The man from the first scene in the film keeps popping up, standing in the corner and watching.
Yes, obviously the house is haunted and eventually, even Ben is forced to admit it. The family is forced to call in a voodoo priest, who attempts to exorcise the house. (The priest is played by Eddie Steeples, who may be best known for playing the comedic Crabman on My Name Is Earl but who actually gives a nicely intense and creepy performance here. Just check out his eyes!) If you’re a fan of the horror genre, then you’ve probably seen a lot of haunted house exorcisms but, even if it might seem like a familiar development, the exorcism scenes in A House Is Not A Home are really well-done. If nothing else, they’re distinguished by the fact that the exorcist isn’t the typical quirky medium or self-doubting Catholic priest that most movies offer up. For once, we’re given an exorcism that’s interesting to watch…
But does the exorcism work? Well — does an exorcism ever work in a haunted house film? You’ll have to watch to find out.
A House Is Not A Home is an effectively creepy movie, one that uses its low-budget to its advantage. Director Christopher Ray allows the camera to creep through the house, snaking its way through empty passages while the soundtrack is full of the sounds of restless spirits. The end result is a film that, as opposed to relying on predictable CGI for its scares, instead creates a palpable sense of doom and dread.
The film is well-acted by the entire cast, with Bill Cobbs especially giving a wonderfully sinister performance. (I wish I could tell you about his final appearance in the movie without it acting as a spoiler but seriously, it’s a wonderfully acted scene.) In the role of Ben is Gerald Webb, who will be a familiar face to anyone who regularly watches the SyFy Channel. Webb (who also earned a bit of pop cultural immortality by serving as casting director for both Sharknados) has appeared in several beloved Asylum films as characters who inevitably always seem to end up getting killed. It was nice, in A House Is Not A Home, to get to see Webb play a leading role and prove that he’s capable of a lot more than just a good death scene. He gives an effective, sympathetic performance here. In fact, the entire family does. One reason that the film works as well as it does is because you believe that these four characters actually are a family. You care about what happens to them and, as a result, the horror is all the more effective.
Finally, two final notes about A House Is Not A Home. At its best, the film — with its emphasis on atmosphere and its scenes of the characters discovering that the house exists on its own plane of surreal logic — can compared favorably to the works of Italian horror director Lucio Fulci. I don’t know if that was intentional or not. But it’s definitely a good thing!
Secondly, and perhaps a little sadly, A House Is Not A Home is one of the few “serious” films that I’ve seen recently that featured an almost entirely African-American cast. That’s really saying something when you consider that I literally watch hundreds of films a year. At a time when mainstream filmmaking (and the horror genre in particular) still seems to be struggling to break free from racial stereotyping, A House Is Not A Home is definitely a step in the right direction.