“During an exclusive tour, a power breakdown inside a secret prison known as the Death House sends two agents fighting through a labrynth of horrors while being pursued by a ruthless army of roaming inmates. As they fight to escape, the agents push toward the lowest depths of the facility where they learn a supernatural group of evil beings are their only chance for survival.”
After years of build-up, the much-hyped and greatly-anticipated Death House — written by Gunnar Hansen and directed by Harrison Smith — dropped on VOD, Blu-ray, and DVD this week. The film has screened at festivals since fall of 2017, and word of mouth from attendees has been high.
However, festival-goers are usually die-hard horror fans, and thus, maybe a little more willing to let things go. I was excited when I first heard the plot summary above. However, as the promotional folks really leaned into the whole “Expendables of horror” thing (complete with poster art that uses a similar death’s head logo at the bottom and even mirrors the logo font) I started to get a little suspicious, especially as I began to hear that maybe it wasn’t quite as big as they were pitching.
The fact of the matter is this: the movie’s pretty weak. There’s a review over at Horror World & Reviews which pretty much sums up everything wrong with Death House in one masterful sentence: “In terms of production values, Death House seems to be the result of Uwe Boll and Uncork’d Productions having a deformed baby!”
Sure, it’s billed as “The Expendables of horror,” but only if produced by Asylum Pictures. It’s like if that studio had made The Dispensables, but instead of Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis, we got Don “The Dragon” Wilson and Jeff Speakman; although I’d probably still prefer to watch that movie instead of Death House.
The majority of the big names — Sid Haig, Bill Moseley, Danny Trejo, and Michael Berryman — get just a few moments of screentime. In the case of Trejo, it’s literal seconds. However, there’s no Robert Englund, no Nick Castle, no Brad Dourif, no Doug Bradley….hell, there’s not even Jeffrey Combs. For the most part, this is Kane Hodder’s movie, with Dee Wallace and Barbara Crampton as the icons with the most screentime after that.
That trio is solid, as far as their specific performances go, although Wallace seems terribly wooden at times. Crampton is great in everything she’s appeared in since her comeback a few years ago, and her Dr. Karen Redmane is no exception. Hodder gets a few great speeches, as well, and he really knocks them out of the park.
Other than that, Death House is a goddamn mess. As it takes place in an underground prison where the power’s been cut, one can understand that it’s going to be dark, but it’s sometimes just shadows on black during certain scenes. The whole viewing experience is incredibly frustrating, as it appears like the budget swings wildly from one scenario to the next.
That scene from the trailer, with the bloody skinless thing screaming into a microphone? It’s the film’s visual highlight, as the effects work is genuinely, freak-out uncomfortable, and lit in a manner which really makes the colors pop.
However, it’s like it was shot by someone else entirely, with a budget unrelated to the rest of the film. There are scenes obviously set in big, cavernous rooms filled with real people and sets, as well as within some sort of actual prison environments, and they look fantastic and convincing, and I totally buy Death House’s premise. Then there are the parts of the movie which look like cut-scenes from a mid-’90s CD-ROM game, and were obviously filmed in front of a green screen and special effects about a step and a half above Birdemic.
The plot’s far more off-the-rails than the summary above, which is a shame, as I would really have liked to see that movie. As it actually unfolds, it’s a real mess, although there’s some intriguing things regarding mind control and how it applies to both the prisoners and the agents, but it’s so buried in a mess of random scenes and setpieces, it’s hard to really care by the time Death House has wound to a close with a final encounter that might rank as one of the most disappointing reveals of a Big Bad I’ve ever seen.
There’s a book by Simon Braund, called The Greatest Movies You’ll Never See, and it’s about “Unseen Masterpieces By The World’s Greatest Directors.” While maybe the “world’s greatest director” tag might be pushing it a tad further than necessary, the premise of the book is that there are all of these films which were conceived, but never finished or even made. Think Guillermo del Toro’s At the Mountains of Madness or Jodorowsky’s Dune.
After reading Braund’s book, you come away with the idea that it’s almost better that we’re left wondering “what if?” rather than the potential disappointment which occurs when the finished project is nowhere near the lofty goals set by its creators. I feel the same way about Death House as I did about Freddy Vs. Jason: after all that time, I’d really rather have had nothing than what I eventually watched.