How many “ghost” movies can you think of take place in an old, abandoned mental asylum? Granted, it’s a pretty good setting, and hard to get much creepier; the old beds with their rotting restraints, rusted wheelchairs, cobwebs over the old electro-shock equipment; nowhere near as trite as a “haunted house” to modern eyes, I’d guess. Most of us have an inherent fear of hospitals, and hospitals where “crazy” people are kept have an even deeper trench of dread for us, so it makes sense that deserted sanitariums are the “old house on the hill” of this generation.
Still, it’s getting kind of movie-of-the-week for me.
This being my general mindset, I approached the film House of Dust with some trepidation. The spooky old booby-hatch motif hasn’t really gotten a reaction outta me since Grave Encounters (and hasn’t really scared me since Session 9), but being who I am, of course I was gonna give it a whirl.
We begin with a fly-on-the-wall scenario sometime back in the 1950s, where there is some pretty deplorable stuff going on in a sanitarium. A doctor is conducting some “helpful” procedures on several “volunteers” strapped down to what look like morgue gurneys; procedures involving forehead injections and power drills, no less. The more psychotic of the patients breaks free of his bonds and gives ol’ doc a little impromptu lobotomization to chew on himself, but the lunatic is quickly subdued by an orderly. Now, instead of paperwork, criminal charges, or anything we would presume to be normal procedure, the bodies and the unconscious nutjob are neatly placed in the on-site crematorium(?) where the bodies (dead and soon-to-be-dead) are reduced to canned ashes. Flash forward to the modern day, where the old, overgrown asylum now sits on (or at least pretty damned close to) a well-manicured New England university. Squeaky-clean Kolt and his friends, sweet, earthy Gabby and skater-dude Dylan, are swapping stories about the old place when new student Emma enters their dorm. Slated to room with Gabby, Emma makes quick friends with the trio (although we’re privy to the fact that Emma has some past mental issues), and joins them in a pre-semester party.
Invariably, the group winds up pilfering the old institution; Emma thinks she hears voices upstairs (has she taken her meds?) and leaves the other three to clown around in the lower levels, where they find the old crematorium. Accidentally upsetting a shelf (that just happens to have some canned ashes on it), the pals wind up inhaling some dust that proves to make some pretty significant changes to their personalities, and poor Emma is left doubting her own sanity…
The movie has a couple of things going for it; for one, it’s shot beautifully, and I don’t just mean the scenery. Although the sets are highly detailed and look like a much higher budget affair (a tip of the hat to the production designer), it was the camera work that really impressed me. The director’s use of shadow and reflection was very effective in what it was trying to do, and overall he showed an impressive flair for building suspense through the narrative. The story itself had a couple of pretty interesting concepts concerning haunting and schizophrenia, and the winding of the story of Emma and her problems around those concepts was very fluid. The acting was much better than I expected; each of the principals was genuine in their portrayals, and didn’t do too many things that were just contrived horror-flick stupid.
Now, with all of those elements, it certainly wasn’t a bad movie; regrettably though, I had one major issue with it: the movie just wasn’t scary to me. The director did a good job with the suspense, but suspense gets you antsy and wondering what’s going to happen next; what makes a movie scary (to me, at least) is dread; that deep, primal feeling that something is just wrong. This film wants to rely primarily on its atmosphere for the terror; there is some good suspense, but other than a couple of those “we see something the characters don’t see” moments and some gore-less jump scares, there just wasn’t much in the way of dread. Adding to this, the ending was a little bit too neat, simple, and obvious of a resolution to the whole plot; it almost felt tacked-on.
If you’re into paranormal-type movies or thrillers, this could be a good one to curl up with; as I said, it brings a couple of interesting points to light regarding the supernatural and how it relates to psychosis. Also, it’s a great choice to watch to study some nice directorial techniques. However, if you’re looking for something that’s gonna have you on the edge of your seat and looking over your shoulder, I really don’t believe that this one is going to trip your trigger.
While the film does have some creepiness to it, if I’m gonna be honest, I have to say that it just didn’t get under my skin. =(
That’s my take on this one, folks.
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