The House On Pine Street (2015) Review
“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under the conditions of absolute reality.” Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House 1959
In 1963 Robert Wise created the perfect haunted house film. In The Haunting, Eleanor Lance (Julie Harris) is a woman with a troubled past. From the film’s beginning we know she is not psychologically sound. When she begins experiencing the paranormal her condition can only get worse. The film evokes a primordial sense of dread by exploiting the imagination of its audience. Robert Wise utilized the simplest special effects to promote the greatest fear. During the last fifty years of haunted house movies this template has been altered and pushed to its extremes – normally to a lesser effect. In the case of The House On Pine Street the groundwork of what Robert Wise created is thoroughly intact. Aaron and Austin Keeling have incorporated similar themes into their film while also painting fully dimensional characters that we actually worry about.
Luckily for us, the brothers rejected the trend of modern haunting films that says they must wrap up all loose ends and defeat the malevolent spirit. If we look at the remakes of The Haunting (1999) and House On Haunted Hill (1999), the evil is put to rest, and everyone goes home happy. This also occurs in Rose Red (2002), The Shining mini-series (1997), and more recently with The Haunting In Connecticut (2009) and The Conjuring (2013). It is actually a disservice to make any comparisons to these films when discussing The House On Pine Street.
Emily Goss perfectly embodies her character Jennifer. She is able to say more with a deadpan stare than most actors can with a monologue. The film opens with various shots of a nearly deserted Midwest town, which seem to relate to the isolation Jennifer will feel later. Jennifer and Luke (Taylor Bottles), her husband, move into a fully furnished home. We learn early on that a mysterious incident begrudgingly forced them out of Chicago (mysterious, in that, we are not given this information). The move is supposed to be temporary. They choose Kansas to be closer to Meredith (Cathy Barnett) – Jennifer’s mother. Meredith has agreed to help them during Jennifer’s pregnancy. Once Luke goes off to begin his new job and Jennifer is left alone in the new house, strange things begin to happen. We have all the normal trappings of a haunted house: closed doors open on their own, dark figures using the bathroom, phantom knocking, and crock pot lids moving. The biggest difference here is what is at stake. Can and will this entity harm the mother-to-be?
The Keeling twins use little in the way of digital effects. Most of the scares come from practical effects and are intensified by our adoration of Jennifer. We really don’t want to see anything happen to her. We are left alone with Jennifer for long stretches of the film, which affects how we react to the narrative. By spending time with only her, we see only what she sees. This means that when she’s afraid so are we. The composition of every shot lingers as if Jennifer is painted into the scene. The cinematography works to unconsciously bring us closer to her. The film’s aesthetic is beautiful. Through symmetrical framing, the Keeling brothers draw us further into the story and more importantly into Jennifer’s psyche. The camera’s movement is slow and subtle which allows us our only comfort from the potential dread around every corner.
When no one believes Jennifer, she becomes more isolated from the world around her. Through the film she grows more paranoid of others. Eventually, we too begin to question her sanity. Though we never fully believe she’s become like Carol (Catherine Deneuve) from Polanski’s Repulsion, the idea of Jennifer being crazy is a palpable one. Carol completely cuts herself off from the outside world and assumes everyone is out to harm her. We never reach that level with Jennifer. Instead, her mental health reminds us most of Eleanor from The Haunting. Eleanor was seen as mentally disturbed by each of the other participants in the study, but not to us. No matter what the intellectuals may have experienced in the house, everything had a “logical” explanation. The same happens with Jennifer. Her husband and her mother both believe she is ill rather than the alternative. The brothers Keeling have created a beautifully intricate character whose vulnerability immerses us within the story.
It has been a whirlwind year and a half for Aaron and Austin. The twin brothers – along with their friend Natalie Jones – moved back to Kansas, wrote a film, gained partial funding through Kickstarter, shot a nearly two hour feature in nineteen days, and premiered it at Cinequest Film Festival. With this quick pace, one might assume that the finished film would be riddled with faults. On the contrary, The House On Pine Street is another example of what haunted house movies should strive to be. Forget Insidious 4 or the Poltergeist remake, if you want a good scare that delivers more than cheap thrills look no further.