When is a horror film not a horror film? When it’s not scary? Or when it’s self-aware enough that it belongs in another category entirely?
First-time feature director Philip Gelatt’s “The Bleeding House” is both of these: it’s a horror film about what makes horror films tick, and while it has a sprinkling of suspenseful moments, it’s oddly measured and calm most of the time. Fortunately for viewers, this doesn’t make it any less fun to watch than your average postmodern splatter flick—in fact, it makes it better.
The story follows a family, the Smiths, living isolated in their huge house in the woods after having endured some terrible event. After overhearing several conversations, the audience can glean that the mother did Something Bad that the local townsfolk won’t forgive the family for, and that the daughter is totally crazy. When the mother puts a padlock on her knife drawer, you know nothing good is going to happen.
Eventually a stranger in a white suit shows up (Patrick Breen, perfectly cast) claiming to be lost with a broken down car. As soon as the family lets him into their home, all hell breaks loose, of course. But the way in which it happens is what makes the film more than just an empty bag of scares with nothing real to say.
Breen’s character is an interesting amalgam of horror traditions: he’s a serial killer, a sociopath, a religious fanatic, an evil doctor and the Angel of Death with a Southern drawl (why do those last two always seem to go together?). His character clearly draws from many famous horror flicks, all the way from “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” to “Funny Games.” What makes him compelling as a character is the fact that he explains his every action to the people he’s torturing, and specifically locates himself in the pantheon of American horror tradition as a symptom of our culture’s lust for violence and retribution. He is what he is because we, the audience, want him to be.
Of course, this strategy could easily tip over from gravitas into camp—it’s as easy to laugh at Breen’s character as it is to be scared by him. But I found exactly this tension to be what made the film interesting, in the end. The crazy Smith daughter, Breen’s character’s foil, is eventually made out to be a more “pure” sort of killer, but that part of the story is even more predictable than the whole evil-doctor schtick. In the end it’s Breen’s show and, for what it is, “The Bleeding House” succeeds admirably.
“The Bleeding House” will be available on VOD nationwide through June 23, and will have a limited release beginning May 13, 2011.