Horror and thriller filmmakers, especially these days, have a daunting challenge of properly conveying to audiences the discombobulating intensity of violation, of effectively dramatizing the moment when characters find the tempo of their everyday lives irrevocably altered. The problem, simply, is that audiences obviously know beforehand what kind of film they’re buying tickets to see, and so the opening act often exudes a vibe of the filmmakers twiddling their thumbs, getting the necessary plot exposition out of the way so they can proceed to the good stuff.
Which is to say that writer-director D.W. Young pulls an impressive hat trick with The Happy House, a horror-comedy that’s authentically misleading until a pivotal moment that firmly establishes the film as a thriller in which a requisite motley cast of characters are bumped off one by one, somewhat in the tradition of Ten Little Indians, in a requisite remote location. Up until that point, though, Young has run the tonal gamut from a Jarmuschian portrait of youthful stasis to a comedy of remarriage to a fish-out-of-water sitcom to a (mild) satire of contemporary America as an increasingly remote and indecisive country of gun nuts and limousine liberals.
“Mild” comes to eventually be a bit of a problem. Young navigates his varying moods with an ease that’s particularly impressive for a director making his feature debut, but he never capitalizes on his ability to coax down our guard. The muddled third act, which isn’t funny or scary enough, gives you time to consider all the promising ideas that haven’t really been fulfilled, such as the amusing notion of a young couple who frequents a bed and breakfast to (by implication) recapture the strangely reassuring irritation of living with their parents, and that praising the Lord and passing the ammo truly is the only way to live in a society increasingly fraught with psychopaths.
But the film is generally charming, and Young’s an equal-opportunity prankster who refuses to make predictable sport of some of the easier scapegoats, particularly Hildie (Marceline Hugot), a conservative Bible thumper who’s eventually allowed to assert herself as the film’s kindest and most poignant inhabitant. Young’s ultimate problem is that he likes his characters too much to put them through the narrative wringer for the sake of momentum or even cohesion.