Monday, December 4, 2017

"Now Her Mind Has Become Unhinged from Mental Disturbance" - Horror House on Highway 6 (2014)

Of all the films produced over the last century asking for--nay, requiring--reboots, perhaps the one at the top of the list is Richard Casey's Horror House on Highway Five (1985). That film is a cornucopia of terror, torture, and ambiguous satire, three items which our modern world sorely needs. We are indeed fortunate as a species that Mr. Casey decided to return, in spirit at least, to his most famous project 29 years later to deliver a reboot that takes his original story in new, and perhaps contradictory, directions.

Unlike the earlier film, Horror House on Highway 6 does not open with a suspense sequence. Rather, with considerably less suspense, it follows a college student as she walks into the distinctive library at the University of California, San Diego. She enters a faculty member's office, but surprisingly the professor addresses her--and several other students in the office--through a computer rather than in person. The professor asks the four students how their group project will contribute to the understanding of media, myth, and society.

The student, Clementine, responds by recounting a simplified version of the story of Horror House on Highway Five: A group of community college students investigated a horror house and disappeared.

(It should be noted that this scene of professorial office hours is given energy through the use of camera zooms. In fact, every shot zooms rapidly toward or away from the actor who is speaking. The effect is not nearly as off-puttingly annoying as one might imagine.)

The professor casually mentions he has a twin brother who lives near the purported horror house. "Maybe you'll run into him," the professor chuckles.

One of the students, Elmira, recounts a confusing dream she had last night about a van trip. She does not want to drive up the freeway to the horror house, but the others convince her nothing will happen. "Dreams are just dreams," says her Croatian classmate, Joe Nick Petronic.

Another classmate further builds her confidence by quoting Shakespeare: "There's more crazy shit in heaven and earth than you ever dreamed about, Horatio."

The Croatian student also builds her confidence by telling her, apropos of nothing, that in his country, people were often tricked when they thought they saw ghosts. "Many time is only vampire or werewolf."

The film then cuts to what must be the horror house at night.

Inside, a camouflage-wearing thug is trying to repossess some medical equipment delivered to someone named Dr. Kessel, though the doctor is not present. Instead, the doctor's uncle, who wears a bow tie but no shoes, tries to dissuade the thuggish repo man from investigating the basement.

(The observant fan of Horror House on Highway Five will note that the sequel has reversed the suspense scene and the college scene, keeping the aforementioned fan on his or her unaforementioned toes.)

As the repo man moves through the basement confiscating video equipment, the filmmakers include another reference to the earlier film, as we hear a whooshing sound. In Horror House on Highway Five, the whooshing is not accompanied by anything except sudden bleeding wounds on the victims; in Horror House on Highway 6, we see some sort of hatchet strike the repo man in the head.

Meanwhile, upstairs, the shoeless uncle tunes his television onto a channel called "Apocalyptic Death Television," which is shockingly showing live video from the basement. On the TV, we see the repo man meet his mildly bloody end.

The unsuspecting college students are on their way to the very horror house whose horrors we have just witnessed. They pull their minivan into a gas station, where the attendant, Lucky, reveals a great deal. Lucky is played by Michael Castagnola, who also played the pivotal role of victim Mike Simpson in Horror House on Highway Five.

"The horror house was located in some kind of aura or force field," Lucky reveals. "Or it was at the intersection of one plane of existence and an alternative universe. How can you take that serious? It's a big hoax, like global warming."

(I must make a note to explore this film further, as its characters appear to know more about parallel universes than characters in most classic films.)

Next occurs one of the most horrifying sequences in the canon of the modern horror film. Using extremely poor judgment, two of the students attempt to purchase a can of soda from a machine inside the gas station. Of course, such wanton disregard for safety soon results in serious injury. The woman is struck on the head, Maximum Overdrive-style, by a can of soda, while the man's wrist is bloodied when he tries to retrieve his own can.

The woman, Elmira, is seriously affected by her run-in with the soda machine. She staggers outside, grabs an axe, and threatens Joe Nick with it. "He's a devil from Hell."

"From Croatia," he corrects her.

She gets in the minivan, still carrying the axe, where the student with the bloody wrist is anxious to find a hospital. Lucky informs them there is a doctor nearby, but no hospital. The doctor is a good one, however. "One time I had a mishap with a metal rake," says Lucky. "Painful? I tell you. But the old sawbones fixed it right up." (The observant viewer will recall Mike's rake mishap in the earlier film.)

As they drive, Elmira tries to explain her sudden paranoia. "I was in the gas station, and suddenly I was surrounded by this white light that was so bright it felt like I was looking at the sun without sunglasses on."

"She hit her head," says Joe Nick, profoundly. "Now her mind has become unhinged, from mental disturbance."

The students find the horror house, which is also the doctor's house, where they are attended by a familiar face: the repo man, now dressed as a nurse in colorful scrubs, though with his camouflage vest on top.

Like most houses that double as doctor's offices, the examining room is downstairs in the basement--in a bomb shelter, in fact. The nurse/repo man pushes the student, Roger, along a dark concrete corridor into an examining room, where Roger meets Dr. Kessel, a large man with dreadlocks wearing a white t-shirt.

As per standard medical procedure, the nurse and the doctor wrestle the patient onto a table and strap him down while he struggles.

"He's lost blood," says the doctor. "We have to replace it with some fluids."

Also following standard procedure, the nurse anesthetizes Roger with the help of a large rubber mallet.

The good doctor then performs brain surgery using a standard Ryobi electric drill, which could perhaps be considered a step up from the hand drill used in the first film.

A few minutes later, the nurse returns upstairs and Clementine demands to see her friend Roger. The nurse accompanies her downstairs to the basement while explaining that not only was the fairly small house both an insane asylum and a government facility for mind control research, but its basement's layout also changes supernaturally whenever the nurse enters. (The audience must take his word for it, as the basement appears the same as before, full of cabinets and video equipment.)

The nurse coaxes Clementine into walking through a doorway, which closes behind her.

Upstairs, Joe Nick and Elmira begin to suspect something is not right when the TV turns on by itself and starts playing "Apocalyptic Death Television," though surprisingly it is not showing either Roger or Clementine being stalked in real time. Instead, it shows the gas station attendant Lucky's "accident" with a metal rake, an accident that is facilitated by the dreadlocked doctor using a mallet.

Joe Nick and Elmira also discover all the doors are locked, and they are even more surprised when two new characters enter from outside. The new characters introduce themselves as Grace Weylan, producer of a TV show called "Rock Wall," and her assistant Herman. After a conversation that I must admit confused me more than a little, Elmira, Grace, and Herman decide to venture out into the night to get help, while Joe Nick will stay in the horror house.

Downstairs, Clementine walks through the basement alone. She discovers a lobotomized Roger sitting in a wheelbarrow and explains to him that she believes her dead father's ghost is somewhere inside the horror house, wearing a red shirt.

Meanwhile, the television upstairs provides some much needed exposition for Joe Nick. On TV, the dreadlocked doctor explains, "In a dream, Elvis Presley led me to this house. I came and saw a man, wretched and tormented he was. Alone."

Behind the doctor is a striking image of George Carlin as an angel.

In a twist reminiscent of that in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Elmira, Grace, and Herman hitch a ride with the shoeless uncle from the earlier scene, and he drives them back to Lucky's gas station.

Unfortunately for the new characters, Grace is quickly axed in the back by the uncle.

There is also a beheading by axe, though the less said about this particular beheading, the better.

Back in the basement of the horror house, the film delivers its most poignant episode as Clementine sees the ghost of her father, and abandons her friend Roger to look for the ghost. When she finds him, he tells her profoundly, "Death is nothing." Then he gives her a key and tries to kill her with a machete.

This sequence is followed by perhaps the film's least poignant episode, as we find Joe Nick strapped to a table with electrodes bloodily buried in the back of his skull. Through complex machinations, Joe Nick's impression of not Elvis but Elvis's dead twin brother allows him to escape, and to chase the dreadlocked Dr. Kessel through the basement.

Outside, Elmira eludes the axe-wielding uncle by colliding with a tree and falling to the ground. (Prudently for the filmmakers, three of her painful stumbles produce the exact same sound clip of her saying, "Oh!") She returns to the horror house and turns the tables on the uncle, bashing him with a fire extinguisher and brutally chopping off his head with the axe.

Herman tells her, "I feel that you've changed."

Several threads come together when Joe Nick interrupts Dr. Kessel as he begins to use his drill on Clementine, but when Joe Nick shoots him, Dr. Kessel fades away, a ghost.

To make matters worse for some of the characters, Elmira enters and, still believing Joe Nick to be a demon, fires a shotgun at him, killing him.

For unexplained reasons, Clementine says, "He was the only one. The only one who could save us."

But Joe Nick stands up. He explains his condition: "Existence is bear trap, hidden under deep winter of snow."

They realize that the basement is a mysterious place where staircases lead right back to where they started.

"Are we dead?" asks Herman.

"No, we are not dead," says Clementine, putting an end to that potential storyline.

To prove they are alive, Clementine uses a video camera to record a few seconds of her and Joe Nick, then she plays it back. Because they have been captured on video, she reasons, they cannot be dead.

Clementine decides the solution to the predicament of the horror house is to become an action hero by picking up the shotgun. She plans to shoot her way out of the basement if necessary.

However, everyone else decides to simply stay in the basement.

In a clever reprise of the "writing a note" scene from Horror House on Highway Five, the lobotomized Roger volunteers to make a map of the way out of the basement for Clementine.

His map is a crude drawing of what appears to be a fishhook.

Clementine's plan to become an action here is thwarted only somewhat when, venturing through the mysterious basement, she discharges the weapon at the ceiling and the recoil knocks her to the ground.

Her plan seems considerably more successful when she finds a door with a fishhook symbol on it, and follows it through the basement and then into a ventilation duct.

In what is certainly the film's most accomplished and surreal image, alluding to both Dreyer's Vampyr and Fragasso's Beyond Darkness, the ventilation becomes a coffin, and Clementine is sealed inside by the ghost of her father.

Some critics might say that the power of the image is diminished, however, when Clementine shoots her way out of the coffin. (Those critics would be somehow immune to the infinite charms of the concept of shooting one's way out of a coffin.)

I will not spoil the film's several endings, but suffice it to say they involve an escape from the horror house, a replacement for the ghostly Dr. Kessel, and two alternate timelines playing out simultaneously. And, for good measure, a logical explanation for everything that some might find satisfying.

Like Plan 9 from Outer Space, though perhaps a bit more ironically and a bit less accurately, the film ends with "Made in Hollywood USA."

While both of Richard Casey's "Horror House" films share some similarities in tone and imagery, there are many noticeable differences. The most notable difference, and one which might lead me to question whether the 2014 film is in fact a sequel to the 1985 film, is the use of the word "five" in the title of the first film and the numeral "6" in the title of the second film. Perhaps the mystery of the titles will never be solved, but I like to think the use of the numeral is a reflection of the shortened attention span of viewers between 1985 and 2014, as we all know modern viewers would prefer to decode one character instead of five characters.

Additionally, I find it ironic that the first film prominently featured a map with highways designated by numerals, while the second film does not. But perhaps I digress.

In any case, it is refreshing to see a filmmaker wait 29 years to produce a sequel that is more philosophical and more existentialist--though perhaps less visceral--than its predecessor. Mr. Casey's presentation of the titular horror house as a fluid and often confusing representation of its demented villain's mind is striking. The ever-expanding basement, perhaps a representation of the subconscious, is reminiscent of the house in Mark Z. Danielewski's celebrated novel House of Leaves. I would even say it is quite an advance over the horror house in Mr. Casey's 1985 film, which is less distinctive, to the point that I confess I am not certain which house in that film is supposed to be the actual horror house.

I can only conclude this review with an expression of my fervent desire to view Mr. Casey's Horror House on Highway 7 sometime in the year 2043. Given the narrative arc connecting the first and second films, the third film will no doubt be a mind-blowing adventure in psychological terror. If only it were not necessary to wait such a long, long time...