And heard within, a lie is spun / Then truth is lost that can’t be won / Listen again and seek the sun
A house often does feel like a living, breathing entity: a being that has existed through time as a persistent cosmic watcher as the landscape shifts and changes around it. It exists in permanence, altered and reforged inside as it slowly consumes its inhabitants and builds them into the eternal foundation. Its walls are documents to its past, telling tall tales of the past tenants who left their mark upon the pillars and corridors within. After all, the old, creaking house is often the inception of malfeasant spirits, gliding effervescently through the space and imparting a distinctly sinister energy that leaves an air of unease, centuries of history washed through every fiber of carpet and splinter of wood.
What, then, if we take that journey along with the house, taking a lens through the ages as it is built from the ground up, as it shifts and changes throughout history, and as it ultimately becomes something different altogether? A novel concept, perhaps, for a spellbinding stop-motion anthology, discomforting and eerie tales woven with quaint fabrics and soft felt, told by proven storytellers in their medium. It’s the all critical, central root from which each tale bursts forth, an essential piece to making it all feel cohesive and impactful even when the tales stake their own claim of vibrant originality, seemingly departing beyond a singular coherent universe. The house truly does feel like a living entity, bolstered by its inception in the first of three stories within the anthology, wherein a poverty-stricken family is mysteriously offered a new house by a wealthy benefactor.
Upon receiving this mysterious offer, with only the stipulation that they must abandon their small roadside cottage, self-pitying Raymond (Matthew Goode) and his soft-spoken wife Penelope (Claudie Blakley) along with young daughter Mabel (Mia Goth) and newborn Isobel, become irrevocably trapped in their new, luxurious mansion, with nowhere to fall back to and no money to strike out on their own. The elusive and perhaps undeniably mad architect, Mr. Van Schoonbeek, begins to turn the comforting affair of inhabiting a new house into a waking nightmare. He constantly reconfigures and reimagines portions of the house at rapid pace, as Penelope and Raymond slowly fall into delirium and as Mabel and Isobel try to escape with their lives, the house beginning to consume everything within it.
This first segment, directed by duo Emma De Swaef and Marc James Roles, is overpowering and overflowing with pulsating anxiety, an effective journey through horrific atmosphere that establishes the anthology’s core without eschewing its own affecting tale of crushing dread. A lie is spun, indeed, the sinister façade of the house atop a lonesome hill with windows glowing like watching eyes, deceptively welcoming despite the horrors that lie in wait within. A shiver runs down the spine as the past is slowly torched by the future, a fiery sewing needle threading existence into the fabric of the house. Just as it all reaches a fever pitch of fire and ice, your heart racing with the spiraling insanity, it’s time to jump forward.
The middle segment, directed by Niki Lindroth von Bahr (whose wonderful short film The Burden (2017) is an outstanding exercise in pointedly sincere absurdity), departs from the last semblances of realism left within the first short to return to von Bahr’s signature world of anthropomorphism, now focused on a manic rat contractor (Jarvis Cocker) who, in present day, is furiously fixing up the house to sell, hoping to make good on the massive debt he has accrued in the process of remodelling. Equal parts bewildering and beguiling, it finds the desperate rat in a series of escalating misfortunes as he attempts to battle off an unrelenting horde of invasive pests while he, too, is slowly consumed by the seemingly supernatural, malevolent force that governs the house. Von Bahr’s segment is decidedly less directly horrific than the preceding one, and instead intensely uncomfortable as it infests and infects with skittering displeasure. Yet it remains effective, a terrifying tale of being completely and hopelessly without agency within your own world.
In the peaceful but melancholic finale directed by Paloma Baeza, a feline landlady, Rosa (Susan Wokoma), inhabits the house, now existing in a distant (or perhaps not so distant) future wherein the world has become flooded, the water level slowly and steadily rising each day. The house seems to be the only one in any immediate vicinity, a lone final stand of defiance to the watery apocalypse. Despite the oncoming tide, Rosa awakes each day bristling with pride, ready to tackle her neatly arranged list of household tasks in which she hopes to slowly fix up the house and host a rotating list of happily paying tenants. Her current tenants, Elias (Will Sharpe) and Jen (Helena Bonham Carter), are not quite as ideal as Rosa would like them to be, both unable to ever pay any sort of monetary rent. Elias feebly attempts to pay with fish caught in the depths outside the house while the spiritual Jen pays each month, without fail, with a small healing crystal.
Ostensibly, for Elias and Jen, with no semblance of civilization left to be found, there is no reasonable way to earn a living, even if they wanted to pay any sort of actual cash rent, and therein lies the driving force of The House. Each story, though distinctly different in tone and delivery, is quietly sympathetic to the struggling and underprivileged, all aimed at the impossibly predatory struggles put upon by the privileged and wealthy, leaving the poor to fight for their lives as they do all they can to merely stay afloat. A family who will do anything to feel as though they’ve succeeded in some small way, a rat desperate to prove himself (maybe just to find love, although his current approach feels flawed), and a group of cats, holding on tightly to the lasting grips of a broken society even when it has all dissolved, who just want to float towards a rising sun with a glimmer of hope in their eyes. To make a house a home is truly a daunting task, especially when it feels so extant, haunted by the past it has lived through, but if we can keep with it long enough, and carry it into the future without letting it consume and destroy us, there might just be hope.
As The House draws to a close, the anthology structure ultimately leaves the film feeling a bit cold and distant, an inherent battle to telling three distinct stories within such a short period. So focused on its wider arc and carefully woven lore, sure to spread intense bouts of theorizing as to how the puzzle of this world all fits together, it often forgets to focus in on the little things, caught between the directors’ proven ability to weave effective shorts and the need to make it all into something more grandly coherent. The questions it poses are certainly fun to explore, to ponder the in-universe explanations for a world that devolves from humans to rats to then be subsequently overtaken by cats, all while a global apocalypse slowly bubbles and emerges, but there’s a lingering messiness to it all that lets down the final product. Opening with such dizzying and horrifying madness only to temper down into a quietly simmering finale fails to invoke the moments of climactic engagement in a typical structure, and its ability to connect with that same early intensity slowly slips away as its energy fades. Regardless, The House remains a stunning piece of stop motion animation that is consistently charming (albeit often horrifyingly so), and it is wonderful to see such talented directors granted the spotlight.