This one's for you, low-budget horror movies… you can be whatever you want! You want to be a schlocky blood-spurter of a flick? Go ahead! You want to be a shoddy and amateurish mess? Why not? You want to be a quiet, intense little monster? Yeah, you can be that too. The Burnt House, without the push and pull of a major studio, chooses the third option and builds itself into a poetic nightmare. It's a slow churn to the end, and may not be for every horror fan, but if you've got the patience this is one cool flick.
The Burnt House is the low-budget creation of Adam Ahlbrandt, who also wrote and directed the indie horror flick Sight. The story follows Megan and Joe, a couple who've just lost their infant son to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. As the couple drifts further and further apart, Joe's mother dies from a heart attack, causing the disgruntled couple to move to his rural childhood home.
Strange things have happened in this house. The opening scenes of the film show the house in the distant past, and we see a woman beaten to death by a big, burly guy with a hammer. Though nothing that follows is as visually grisly, this scene does a fine job of setting the tone for the rest of this flick. As the story unfolds, we spend more time in the house, and stranger and stranger things start happening. Joe and Megan's relationship strains to the point of rupture as Megan feels more isolated and trapped every day. Joe, on the other hand, seems hell bent on staying in the house, as he slowly comes unravels and we learn the horrible secrets from the childhood eh spent there. It's very unnerving to watch this couple on the verge of a breakdown while the paranormal (i.e. visions, the mysterious movement of objects, and strange noises) also takes its toll.
The film ratchets up the tension by, essentially, counting down to November 3rd. We know something terrible happened on that day years ago, and when the days start to wind toward it in the present, an eerie feeling of dread grows wonderfully. The climax ends with great gobs of bloodshed, and while it doesn't go in the direction one would expect, it still satisfies. Plot lines come together, tension builds, and skeletons slip out of the closet. The ending is low-key – less Poltergeist house imploding, more Jack Torrance freezing to death alone.
Visually, this flick's got its act together. The camera work and shadow play are top notch, as are the choices in color. When we're dealing with flames and the burnt, everything is red and warm, but other than that most scenes feel cold and look blue. If the story feels a bit light, you're not factoring in everything the visuals are telling you.
The film does suffer from some of the old tropes of low budget/independent filmmaking. There's more narration than actual dialogue. The moody main character puffs on his cigarette because, well, what else is a moody main character going to do? When there's nothing left to say, our characters usually say f**k. The version I saw also had some problems with the sound mixing, but one expects this will be fixed by the time this film starts making the rounds. These aren't deal-breakers, but they do leave the film feeling, at times, amateurish.
As I mentioned, this movie takes its time. If you're looking for an intense, action-packed horror flick full of flying heads or bloody fangs, The Burnt House won't be your cup of tea. If, however, you can settle down with a good story and let the ambience of a movie sink into you, you'll be in for a good ride. And you might just find yourself pretty creeped out, too.