FEBRUARY 21, 2017
If nothing else, I've made one thing perfectly clear over the years: I enjoy seeing Danielle Harris in my horror movies. So when I saw her name in the cast list for Havenhurst I asked for a review screener, something I almost never do anymore because I lack the time to keep up with such obligations (indeed, this review is like two weeks late). But honestly, I couldn't remember the last time I saw her in a new horror movie*, so my interest was piqued enough to make the exception. Alas, I don't like to spoil anything in the first paragraph, but if you were planning to see the movie just for her, I would advise you to skip this one, as she dies in the first three minutes - before her credit even appears! Not that I thought she was the Final Girl or anything (Julie Benz is billed first), but three goddamn minutes? Even Drew Barrymore lasted a good ten minutes in Scream!
Luckily for the part of my brain that is able to enjoy horror movies even if Ms. Harris isn't around, the movie isn't all that bad. Kind of a blend between Saw and Crawlspace, it takes place almost entirely in the titular building, which is home to several people who are trying (some harder than others) to improve their lives after hitting rock bottom with drugs, booze, sex, etc. But the place is run by the always delightful/creepy Fionnula Flanagan, who insists on obeying the rules (NO drugs, booze, sex... you get the idea) or else they will be evicted immediately. Since this is a horror movie, you can guess what actually happens when someone is "evicted", and while I can't vouch for the logic of a place that is clearly at the center of what must be several disappearances without ever being investigated (until now!), it works for what it is, and at 84 minutes with credits certainly doesn't wear out its welcome, unlike certain other creepy building movies of late.
And while I missed Harris, it's not like Benz is chopped liver, and it was nice to see her playing a more relatable character since her other genre turns tend to be a little more fantastical (Buffy) or unlikable (Saw V). She's a recovering alcoholic who was friends with Harris' character and has moved into her now vacant room at the Havenhurst, and seemingly isn't there for more than 12 seconds before she starts getting suspicious of the sounds she hears in the middle of the night, Harris' sudden disappearance, etc. There's a fun little but of detective business where Benz and a cop/possible love interest discover that the blueprints for the building (found in Harris' things; we are led to believe she was killed for snooping) depict rooms that are bigger than they appear to be in reality, the rare horror film to include hidden passageways that are actually logically implemented, instead of just being there for the hell of it (Black Xmas is a particularly eye-rolling offender). Plus for whatever reason I always just enjoy watching people study diagrams and solve minor mysteries like this in movies; if In The Mouth of Madness spent a full half hour on Sam Neill cutting up the book covers and making the Hobbs End map it'd probably be my favorite Carpenter movie.
Another thing I liked was that it randomly invoked H.H. Holmes, who in real life had a "murder house" much like Havenhurst that was modified to make victims easier to access and kill. It's an interesting way to use a real life serial killer without going to the trouble of making it a period piece (or a silly supernatural thing like 8213: Gacy's House), and also to allow the audience to enjoy its cheap thrills without it feeling exploitative, as it might if it were recounting the actual murders Holmes committed (which numbered anywhere from nine to two hundred victims, depending on his mood during confessions). There was a wave of indie biopics about serial killers during the '00s (many of which I reviewed here, almost none of which were particularly good) that I don't think ever actually covered Holmes, oddly enough. I assume the 19th century setting would have been too difficult to pull off for those low budget affairs (which, for all their faults, did usually try to stick more or less to the facts, unlike Naked Massacre or Henry, which were much looser versions of high profile murderers), but suffice to say an accurate film about him would be, if nothing else, one of the most colorful, given his cross-country trail and aforementioned architectural shenanigans. Scorsese and DiCaprio are supposedly making one, so hopefully that comes to fruition, especially if Marty's in schlock mode.
My only major issue was that it could have been paced better; we know something's up right off the bat and Benz is front and center for the most part, so it starts to feel a bit repetitive. There's no real mystery to what's going on (we see who the killer is in the first scene with Danielle), so it's mostly just a "how will it ultimately conclude?" waiting game. The murders are gorier than expected (especially the nurse lady) and it's fun to see how many things Flanagan and her sons have rigged up (the bed that tilts and sends its victim down a floor is particularly admirable), but as much as I like Benz I did start to tire of her looking intently at the walls looking for hidden doors and the like after a while. Perhaps letting Flanagan take a more central role and go batshit (think original Mother's Day) would have helped matters, or teasing out the mystery a touch just to give it a little more oomph might have helped.
It also seemed a bit too dark, though that might have been the screener so I can't really hold it against the film. Had I gotten my act together I would have known for sure, as the film was playing for a week at one of the Laemmle theaters (where I've seen a number of similarly independent horror films that play for a week before hitting VOD), but I suck. It's funny, I used to get annoyed when publicists would offer screeners instead of actual screenings, and would even turn down the (free, convenient) option if I knew the film would be playing theatrically. But now that such endeavors would come at the expense of spending time with my kid (or, if he was asleep, my very-close-to-beating copy of Final Fantasy XV), I pass them up in favor of the screener, which I can pause when necessary and tackle on my own schedule. It's not ideal, and I still champion theatrical viewings for those who can find the time for it, but at least I'm coming around a bit on the alternative. But man, even if it only would have been for three minutes, it woulda been nice to see my lady on the big screen again! My bad.
What say you?
*Turns out it was See No Evil 2, which helps explain why I couldn't remember it.