It takes a lot to stand out in the world of horror. You either have to reinvent the genre, fully embrace its often creaky conventions, or do something so unusual or out of character that it calls attention to your new or novel approach. Without that, you simply get lumped in with a hundred hackneyed pretenders to the paranormal throne - and end up seeming as such. With his African-American-ccentric approach and unique cinematic style, Sean Weathers is such an eerie auteur wannabe. His fixation is on taking the racial element out of fright, allowing individuals of color to fight and survive the same unholy harms that Caucasians in the mainstream battle regularly, is truly original. His oddball first film, House of the Damned, takes zombies, family curses, comedy, ancient rituals, and undead rapping and turns it into a (mostly) terrific take on the type. While he might not be remaking the standard spook show, his approach is unique enough to easily stand out.
On the eve of her 21st birthday, Liz (Valerie Alexander) is called by her grandfather and given some harsh news. Her recently deceased dad was actually killed by her mother, Emily (Monica Williams) because...well, because she is the incarnation of an ancient Egyptian evil that comes to Earth and destroys whatever family she is involved with in order to stay young. Naturally, her upcoming party will be the sight of the sacrifice, putting our heroine's clueless friends in harm's way. Naturally, Liz wants to know what it takes to destroy her pretend parent. Once Emily discovers her secret has been revealed, she will stop at nothing to make sure no one survives her ritualistic wrath.
House of the Damned is a hoot. It's like watching Spike Lee's She's Gotta Have It as envisioned by an Evil Dead era Sam Raimi. While writer/director Weathers has little of Mr. Spider-man's cinematic chutzpah, he gets his point across with passion and charm. Granted, things are a bit disjointed at first. An initial hammer attack comes out of nowhere, while Emily's part in the plot requires a few minutes of mindless exposition before it is explained. Eventually, the narrative gets around to Liz being in danger, her mother being a monster, and her friends as fresh meat in a standard slasher dynamic. But thanks to his desire to add as much "local" 'color' to the mix as possible, Weathers gets it all to work. We suddenly become invested in our lead's fate. We enjoy the carefree way her pals enter the picture (and the idiosyncratic way in which they leave). We get the references and appreciate the sometimes soft black and white imagery. If you were a thinking man, you'd assume House of the Damned was some sly commentary on racism. In fact, it really comes across as a frightmare with a decidedly urban bent.
For her part, Ms. Alexander is an excellent heroine. She has the right balance of concern and courage. She fights back with flare and never once hides behind her obvious victim's purpose. At times, her derring-do can be a bit off-putting. We like to think our genre chicks have some slight vulnerability. Still, when put up against the scenery chewing challenges of Ms. Williams, Liz comes out on top. As the she-demon with a taste for immortality, Emily is all over the map. One minute she's sexy - the next, she's scary. One moment we are watching her easily best some bumbling boy. Another, she is barely managing to fight back. A lot of House of the Damned plays like Weathers woke up with a great idea, jotted down a few ideas, and then let that serve as a script. Sequences are really as fleshed out as they should be and this is especially true of the kills. We want suspense and drawn-out drama. What we get are shocks, and the occasionally splatter of gray gore.
Still, House of the Damned can be said to deliver. It announces its twists on the terror tropes and then goes about making good on each and every call. Instead of miring the viewer in metaphysical falderal, the movie uses humor and heritage as a way of making a connection. It's the main reason we respond to the story the way we do. Instead of seeing stuck-up teens shuttling suburban ennui at the camera, we get clever nods to the black community, as well as the unique perspective said brings. It's no Tyler Perry, but that may be a good thing. In addition, Weathers shows that he is just as capable as his white counterparts in digging through the myriad of macabre cliches to find the fear he is looking for. It has to be said that House of the Damned doesn't really reinvent the horror wheel. What it does do, however, is take a tired type and breathe new life into it via a change in ethnic backdrop.
Shot on a camcorder and loaded with lighting and production problems, distributor Full Circle Films has its work cut out for it. The DVD delivers a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image that is very soft, sometimes out of focus, and occasionally choppy and poorly composed. Still, considering its age and technological era, the transfer is tolerable. It won't win any awards, but it's not the worst the homemade horror film has to offer.
Utilizing a tinny Dolby Digital Stereo mix, the aural aspects of this release are equally confusing. For the most part, the dialogue is captured by an internal microphone that barely does the job, while the repetitive music score struggles to make us care. All in all, the tech specs are barebones and basic.
Not much to discuss here. There's a 20 Questions featurette with Ms. Alexander that's interesting, as well as a link to a podcast featuring Mr. Weathers. Of course, such web-based content is of no use to anyone without a Internet-accessible player. There are also a collection of trailers and clips from other product from this particular filmmaker. Most are not really worth watching.
For what he managed to make on a shoestring and a prayer, Sean Weathers should be praised. House of the Damned is not perfect - heck, it's barely watchable at times - but it does grab us with its uniqueness and backdrop. Others would argue it's a solid Skip It experience. In a more calm, rational light, the film actually deserves a Rent It. This way, you can decide if you want to own a copy of African American movie history, or simply watch a weird horror film and then move on. In either case, Sean Weathers remains a name worth considering. While his other efforts have ended up being more than underwhelming, this is where it all began. House of the Damned is no masterpiece. It's actually a mostly enjoyable mess.