The Heirloom
Tartan Video // R // $24.99 // April 25, 2006
Review by J. Doyle Wallis | posted May 23, 2006
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Okay, last week I reviewed a film called Pray and bemoaned how tired the Asian horror genre has gotten. Still, I review, so when the Taiwanese flick The Heirloom (2005) came around, I decided to give it a try. The resulting impression it left on me is strictly straight down the middle, not so bad that its bad, but not so good that it is good. But, I have gotten to the point that I thanked whatever god may be out there that it didn't have a little girl ghost.

Architect James Yang (Jason Chang) returns from his studies in Europe because he has inherited his families sprawling, abandoned, 70 year old, Tapei home. He convinces his long time girlfriend Yo (Terri Kwan) to move in with him. But, it isn't long before the musty, unkept abode inspires some ill feeling and unfortunate fatal accidents to anyone who visits. James and Yo's friends Yi-chen and Cheng find themselves blacking out and waking up in the mansion. James starts having bad dreams connected to long buried memories form his childhood. As Yo begins to dig into the house's history and the Yang families past, it becomes apparent that some devilish business once went on in the home and it is infested by a curse they may be unable to escape.

You know the Eddie Murphy routine about The Amnityville Horror? When your house starts whispering, ‟Get Out,‟ you don't wait around, you get-the-fuck-out. Well, since it is also in the haunted house horror genre, it is not surprising that The Heirloom contains a similar moment. After James Yang's best friend mysteriously dies in his new home, the rest of his inner circle is behaving wonky after coming over, a freaking detective dies via ripping his own hands off and being compelled to stumble to Yang's house where he bleeds to death, and despite Yang's fiancees's pleading to move, Yang decides to stay because... *drum roll, please*... all the weird, tragic things have happened to other people. Oh sure, fine. As long as its ‟other people‟ that are getting dismembered and mysteriously dying, we're perfectly fine. It is one of those weak moments all too common in horror films where all good sense goes out the window. Maybe, considering the strange circumstances, James doesn't feel the need to leave, as for Yo, she should have checked into a hotel.

The Heirloom is a film on a teeter totter. Director Leste Chen has a terrific eye and sense of horror atmosphere, but the script falters. Impressive visuals are let down by the subpar writing and the film works best when Chen gets to indulge in the pure visuals of storytelling rather than relying on teh lame exposition. The editing has a very choppy feel, jump cutting from one scene to the next, displaced passages of time, which I took to mean they wanted to keep the viewer on their toes and a bit rattled. But when characters react blandly to the situation they are in, any disorienting effect is lost. Further evidence of a lackluster script comes about when the whole background behind the haunting is spelled out in one scene with flat, succinct detail. No subtly. No imagination. It just vomits the explanation up on the screen so they can rush to the third and final act.

So, The Heirloom is an Asian horror about inheritance-gone-wrong, which is fitting because after initial promise, the genre has spawned some increasingly chunky and tired, formulaic spook fests. The film falls somewhere in the middle, not among the best or the worst of the genre, interesting enough for a casual watch but not likely to garner many feverish fans or linger too long on horror fans memories. And, to be fair, just like James Yang sticking around that damned house, I'll keep watching these films hoping to find another gem.

The DVD: Tartan

Picture: Anamorphic Widescreen. The first thing viewers will want to note is a particular aesthetic choice the director made. Much of the film has very soft blurred edges. The effect is not quite as overdone as it is in Fulci's Conquest or Altman's Quintet but is still extremely noticeable. One assumes this was done in order to disorient the viewer, make the film fall into a more dreamy, or nightmarish, state, or maybe the cinematographer had glaucoma.

Technically, I did not notice many glaring glitches or severe artefacts. The print seems just a tad sallow in the color department. Again, this could be a stylistic choice, but the flesh tones and color scheme seemed especially pallid. All of the characters looked corpse like. Contrast and grain levels appeared to be well-balanced.

Sound: DTS, 5.1, or 2.0 Mandarin language. Optional English or Spanish subtitles. Good sound presentation, well-mixed, with the usual centered dialogue, and fx and music filling out the sides. Surround mixing was minimal, pretty straightforward. While intentional, the score is a bit bombastic. The subtitles contained a few minor flubs.

Extras: Slipcase.--- Original trailer, plus more tartan release trailers.--- ‟Making of‟ Featurette (24:00).--- Deleted Scenes (6:47).--- Commentary by director Leste Chen, writer Dorian Lee, as well as the music composer, and production and sound designers.

The extras, while kind of muddling, are all worth a look. The featurette is pretty standard, a good promo-oriented view behind the scenes. The deleted scenes are mostly timecoded and therefore obviously never got out of the rough edit stages. The commentary is packed with production staff, so it is a very tech-oriented track with each department getting into the basics of what they aimed to achieve.

Conclusion: The Heirloom is a film that largely works in moments, carried by a few effective sequences and some slick, atmospheric photography that will keep most viewers interested- though all the style on hand doesn't compensate for its scripting and flat actor flaws. There are certainty far worse, far more cliched examples in the recent supernatural horror genre. The disc is a nice presentation with an okay round of extras, so The Heirloom is a solid rental for those that are curious.

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