The last film I reviewed, The French Dispatch, was a compilation of journalistic stories. This week’s film is an anthology of a very different nature. The House (2022) is a British stop-motion animation comprising three distinct sections, each with a different director and a new aesthetic.
Part I, “And heard within, a lie is spun,” directed by Emma de Swaef and Marc James Roelsis, is by far the most compelling of the three stories. Here, the father of a poor family receives a mysterious offer from an architect offering a mansion to live in free of charge — at least, almost. The one stipulation is that the family must give up their old, small, but beloved home and their belongings so that everything in the house will suit the architect’s specific and finicky tastes. Naturally, the seemingly charitable deal ends up as a trap, and the young daughter, along with her infant sister, ends up wandering the ever-changing halls of her new frightening home while her parents are slowly enchanted by and then engulfed in its mahogany and velvet glory.
Now, this is not a particularly new story, at least on its own. As soon as the deal is made, the audience understands how the narrative will unfold. We have heard enough haunted house stories to know the signs that we have found ourselves in one: eerie music, the signing of a contract, a mysterious benefactor, maniacal laughter, exile from the known, pilgrimage to the unknown. Yet somehow, directors Roelsis and de Swaef managed to make the sequence absolutely captivating, terrifying, and new.
The most immediate innovation of the short is in its design. This section is visually stunning and a true masterpiece of stop motion animation. The characters are heavily stylized, with tiny faces swallowed up in the middle of their large heads — an initially off-putting choice that becomes charming as its strangeness wears off. But even more interesting is the material at play: felt. Bits of wooly skin move gently from frame to frame to create dynamic exteriors which feel at times scratchy, at times soft, yet always doll-like. Of note, then, is the first shot of the film: the daughter’s doll’s house, which bears a striking resemblance to the final mansion.
If we understand that the stop-motion animation blurs the lines between figure and figurine, then the somewhat one-dimensional characters become archetypal. The mother is always sewing; the father is always tending to the fire. Eventually, these roles consume them. I was disappointed when the section ended, and I realized that I was only a third of the way through my viewing time. I wanted more.
Part II, “Then lost is truth that can’t be won,” directed by Niki Lindroth von Bahr, has such a dramatically different tone that it’s not clear we’re even in the same universe anymore. This world is populated by anthropomorphized rats. Our protagonist is one such rat, trying to sell a house — the titular haunted house. Unfortunately, it’s infested with beetles.
I found this section interesting, in a removed, intellectual way. But I cannot say I enjoyed watching it. The furry insects swarming the screen were visually nauseating, and I genuinely felt sick at the ending. Maybe it’s the mark of a good horror movie to elicit this reaction.
The third and final section was the least successful of the three, “Listen again and seek the sun” directed by Paloma Baeza. Here, anthropomorphized cats (not rats this time) form our characters. Some kind of post-apocalyptic flood has left their house as the only one standing, and the protagonist grapples with the choice to flee. None of the characters are particularly engaging, and after an hour of watching the horrors of the house, I still felt no sympathy for their desire to stay.
While The French Dispatch had narrative difficulties, the main three stories were tied together by the strong Andersonian style. The House, on the other hand, had very little linking each chapter together. It’s difficult that the three are expected to exist in the same world. While the house remains important in Part II and III, it of itself is no longer an element of the horror.
My recommendation? Treat The House like a short film. Stop watching after Part I.