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House in the Alley

Shout Factory // Unrated // May 27, 2014
List Price: $14.93 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted June 10, 2014 | E-mail the Author
The Film:

Another house at the end of a street leads to another case of psychotic tendencies and demons from the home's past in this import from Vietnam, a slice of midnight-movie psych-horror from director Le-Van Kiet. House in the Alley initially catches one's eye with the piercing image of a wide-eyed woman brandishing an axe through the cracked glass of a window, suggesting intensity and bloodshed might be lurking around the film's dark corners. Like many others of its type, however, the glimpses initially offers at its tenser aspects aren't representative of the film as a whole, where the thrills of exploring its oft-tread territory of personal trauma fueled by supernatural elements mostly occur in small clumps within a strained story. Unfortunately, this Vietnamese import ends up being far too slow and dim of a burn alongside the entirely unconvincing spousal drama padding its runtime, and the macabre secrets waiting at the back of the alley aren't nearly enough to excuse its tedious non-suspense built on warped post-pregnancy madness.

House in the Alley starts out strongly enough by depicting the volatile and ultimately unsuccessful birth of a child, where the mother, Thao (Thanh Van Ngo), elects to keep the dead fetus in a closed box in the bedroom with her and her husband, Thanh (Son Bao Tran). It's a worse time than normal for this to have happened since the couple just moved into a fixer-upper home in dire need of an tonal uplift, something Thao isn't feeling up to after her failed pregnancy. As Thanh gets back to work at his family's factory -- headed by his domineering mother who consistently scolds him about his relationship with Thao, getting focused on the business, and sprucing up the happiness in his home -- his wife tries to cope with life after losing her child, which understandably altered her perspective. A dark presence looming in their house elevates her deepening depression and mania, though, forcing Thanh to walk on eggshells around her while trying to keep his business affairs in order, ever troubled and concerned about what his wife might do next.

While Thao's postpartum psychosis and the house's enigmatic impact on her provides an eerie foundation for House in the Alley -- not entirely unlike the supernatural essence of something akin to Rosemary's Baby or Grace -- the extended combination of her depression and her husband's reaction to it drones on for far too long, creating exasperatingly ineffective tension around the house. The film repeatedly retreads the same conversations about Thanh's business woes and tentative grasp on his wife's condition, acting more like a stalling tactic to pad out the suspense than actual character growth that'd heighten the emotional stakes. Thanh, as a result, comes across as a weak-willed hubby who lets those in his life scrape and stomp all over him, giving us a limp and largely unlikable point of view for everything that's going on. It doesn't help that he eventually resorts to sleazily pushing his wife's boundaries to reawaken her passion, leading to some exceptionally poor judgment calls on his behalf about how to react to her condition that, frankly, make it really difficult to identify with him.

Thao's escalating misery becomes the only engaging through-line in House in the Alley, driven by Thanh Van Ngo's piercing glances and quaking temper while handling the mother's twisting mental state. With a more focused script and adventurous direction, her pointed physical acting could've shaped her macabre fixation on her stillborn child and how she handles her life afterwards -- chatting with friends who know about the fetus, deciding whether to visit family, fixing up her home -- into a fine thematic backbone, perhaps a broad parable of actual postpartum depression. The film's repetitious exposition and drawn-out stillness buries her strengths underneath layers of bland moody rubble, though, bookending her despondent glances at nothingness with sparse atmosphere that tries too hard to be a vague blend of insanity and the house's supernatural effects. It's a testament to those eyes, that deceptively frail body, and her ability to spookily wield a hatchet that they're still effective when the time finally comes.

Regrettably, House in the Alley furthers its watered-down domestic angle for the better part of a tiresome hour -- similarly to Thailand's Laddaland, in fact -- with only the incredibly sparse pitter-patter of ghostly footsteps and the screeching of a cat for dashes of atmospheric jump-scared and unconvincing deviations in the plot. There's a reason why most of this review focuses on the dramatic side of the story instead of the spooky elements: there's very little buildup in the supernatural angle, and the expected, sharp increase in horror at the end comes far too short in justifying the film's problematic and snooze-worthy focus on the characters themselves. All that's left are continual stylistic fades to black, a weasel of a husband who doesn't earn much in the way of sympathy, and a possessed weapon-wielding woman driven mad by the unburied baby hanging out in their mildly-haunted house ... yet, somehow, it's not really anything we haven't seen before. To be honest, the two seem like they deserve one another, whether they're living in that creepy fixer-upper or not.

The DVD:

Video and Audio:

Shout's dedicated horror wing, Scream Factory, have done right by this largely unheard-of Vietnamese import, presenting its straightforward, crisp digital cinematography in a smashing 1.98:1-framed, widescreen-enhanced transfer. There isn't a lot of complexity to the photography, really, but it does have moments of dark low-contrast situations that amply capture the eerie mood they're going after. Flesh tones are balanced, the fineness in strands of hair and the rims of glasses are relatively crisp, and the coarse textures of the Vietnamese location grasp are sharply detailed at first blush. The disc does have occasional issues with shimmering on complex surfaces, though, which takes it down a peg. the soft-blues in paint, the greens peeking out in the architecture's foliage, and the brown weathering on walls give it some rays of color to work with, though, and it's free of jitters, distortion, and too much egregious noise in its moderately-deep black levels. In all, House in the Alley looks great.

The Vietnamese 5.1 Dolby Digital track only gets a few sparse moments to unleash its doses of sonic horror, but they're pretty darn effective when they do. The most prevalent effect is that of footsteps and laughter from ghostly children, which travels to the front and rear channels with little effort and top-shelf clarity. Other intense sound effects pack a subtle but atmospheric punch, like the scraping of an axe blade on hard textured floors and the flickering of out-of-control fire, while the rapid Vietnamese dialogue is moderately clear and only suffers from muffling on a handful of occasions. The subtitles aren't perfect, with a few grammatical hiccups and cumbersome issues with the translation, but they're decent enough to dig into the story. An English 2.0 dub is also available, while English is the only subtitle option.

Special Features:

Only a brief Trailer (0:48, 16x9).

Final Thoughts:

If you're drawn to the general sub-genre that House in the Alley belongs in -- supernatural horror featuring haunted homes and individuals driven mad by something deeply personal -- then you'll have probably already seen most of what this Vietnamese import has to offer in others of its type. Its macabre premise, that of a mother who decides to keep her stillborn child's body locked in a box at the other end of her and her husband's bedroom, grows tiresome instead of adding something unnerving or thematically interesting to the story. The few things it actually does differently aren't boundary-pushing or chilling enough to merit its cumbersome buildup, where ineffective domestic drama is peppered with hints towards the supernatural while approaching a blandly grotesque climax. Shout Factory handled the DVD's audiovisual merits admirably, but the film itself is dead on arrival. Skip It.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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