Death House isn’t a movie. It’s the concept of a movie, the idea of a movie. It’s a 90 minute trailer for a film that’s still little more than a flicker in the director’s eye. In any good trailer, you see a ton of familiar faces for slim scenes who recite lines that sound like they might be really important in the whole movie. Then, you’re cut to a different scene totally disconnected from the former that introduces new characters that say unrelated stuff that might be really important in the whole movie. This is what gets you pumped to see how everything unfolds and connects when the creator’s vision is seen in full.
Here, though, director Harrison Smith has no full vision. He’s making this shit up as he goes along.
Director: Harrison Smith
Release: November 6, 2018
In the ultra-max prison known as Death House a bevy of faces familiar to horror fans appear. You have Kane Hodder outside his usual walking-and-stabbing-horny-teens routine as Jason Voorhees, Sid Haig being entirely too good for this movie, Danny Trejo being exactly good enough for this movie, Barbara Crampton saying “girl power” and doing a fist bump, and Dee Wallace just not giving a shit.
Watching her walk and monotone worthless exposition is a joy, because she reflects my exact feelings at any point in the movie. She delivers lines with less enthusiasm than text-to-speech during moments that drag out forever, her acting ability increases as the movie seems to be making a turn toward actual horror, and she dies right around the point where I lose hope anything can be salvaged from this celluloid sewage. She’s a national treasure.
This doesn’t nearly end the list of cameos, however, with the late Gunnar Hanson and Michael Berryman from The Hills Have Eyes playing two of the five evils that fill the ninth level of Death House. Tony Todd from Candyman appears at the beginning and end of the film as a sort of psycho who’s in his own movie, because nothing he says or does has anything to do with Death House. Even Lloyd Kaufman has a role as a doctor who extracts an EMP device from the body of a guard, which causes a power outage that sets the threadbare plot in motion. Then, the camera cuts away, and he’s never seen again. There’s no reason to assume he was killed by anything, but he’s certainly dead to us.
Death House is a slop of ideas and concepts that never amount to much or mean anything. The two agents who are investigating the Death House for unexplained reasons at one point take a prison shower together and show each other mysterious tattoos they don’t remember getting, but the inked images have a vague meaning to them. This is never brought up again. Sid Haig tells the male agent something suggesting that the agent might be a serial killer and then something about god, and then he disappears and is never seen again. There’s a room where a bloody woman screams into a microphone hanging from the ceiling and a bloody dude is munching on a baby corpse, and when Dee Wallace has to explain what’s going on she just says, “We have no idea why this is here.” Oh, thanks.
The idea behind this Death House, for what it’s worth, is that it’s supposed to be a brainwashing facility where virtual reality is used on the most evil killers to try to rehabilitate them. This operation uses exact reenactments of murders in setting and victim–except it seems the victims in this VR reenactment are really being killed, which doesn’t make sense. Also, it makes little sense how getting these killers to kill over and over again will make them want to stop killing. One scene shows a female chainsaw killer known as Leatherlace reliving her murders, screaming with a VR set on her face, while a pale blue hologram of her father (who looks like George Lucas’s ghost) talks to her. That’s supposed to help somehow, I guess.
As Dee Wallace dutifully tells us, though, the real goal is to get people to stop making horrific pieces of art, music, writing, or film, because that’s what causes true violence in society. And that sounds like an interesting idea for a horror movie. It’s too bad nothing ever happens with it. Everything’s dropped as quickly as it’s picked up. You might even think the VR angle might lead to some situation where the agents start to wonder what’s real and what isn’t that will eventually lead to a twist that reveals they’re prisoners after all. Don’t worry, though, because the second the power goes out the whole concept of a VR prison is abandoned.
Even the five evils who are supposed to be these super powered immortal monsters of mayhem don’t arrive until the tail end. At that point only two of them get to talk (and boy do they talk), and they only kill one person with magic powers before escaping. Then, the agents have to chase them down in order to return them to the Death House, because good always has to chase evil and evil is the real god and true hell is a world where everyone is neither good nor evil, and a bunch of other bullshit Gunnar Hansen rattled off before the credits rolled.
Of course this ends with full expectation of a Death House franchise. With enough names to pique the interest of horror fans, it might dupe enough folks into paying to see this exhausting exercise in free association with no core idea or theme, with no real characters, with no violence or horror, and then we will have to sit through a Death House 2. That’s a terrible shame, because if there’s one thing the Mad Libs script makes abundantly clear it’s that Death House fucking sucks.