NOVEMBER 9, 2010
At long last, a decent amusement park based slasher film! While technically just a "fun house" slasher, House Of Fears gets right what Dark Ride got so very very wrong - likable characters, a good pace, and a lack of annoying/convoluted plot twists. It may go a bit too far toward the "plotless" end of the spectrum for some, but I found the straight-forward approach quite refreshing. Add a random cameo by Jared Padalecki (as himself, I think?) and you have one of the better "Never heard of this but it's on Netflix instant so I'll watch it" selections I've had for HMAD.
Basically, the plot is that the usual 6 kids get trapped inside a fun house that's based on the most common fears: spiders, ghosts, the dark, etc. But there's this supernatural totem that gets disrupted and thus their own personal fears (buried alive, scarecrows, etc) come to life as well. So you have a place designed to scare you, still operating normally while they try to escape from the other stuff. It gives the film a very fast pace, and allows for a few decent thrills even when not much else is happening. So many of these movies end up taking place in the non-ride parts of the ride (like Funhouse, largely taking place in heating ducts and offices), but director Ryan Little takes full advantage of his location. Plus, while it may be a little too big to be believable, I like that they used a lot of actual funhouse standards, such as the "spinning" tunnel and black light painted hallways. It gave it a slightly higher sense of realism than say, Child's Play 3's traveling carnival that had a multi-million dollar indoor roller coaster ride.
And they waste no time in getting there. There's an opening scene to explain how the totem got there (well, sort of, it's a bit clunky in its attempt to get through it as quickly as possible), and some of our group are introduced as they are leaving a party to go check the place out. I'd say they were locked inside the funhouse by the end of the first reel, if there were reels on a Netflix stream.
Also, again, the kids are likable! Even the obligatory conflicts aren't based on mean-spirited hate, it's actually quite believable. Our heroine (Unrest's Corri English, who should be in more stuff) is sort of an introvert and forced by her mom and stepdad to join her new step-sister at the party and thus to the fun house, so they don't really get along. And another guy was interested in a girl (Shrooms' Alice Greczyn - yum) and hoping to have some alone time with her in the funhouse, but alas she gets back with her ex a few minutes before the party, apparently. So there's some personal drama, but it never overshadows the point of the movie, nor do they become spiteful toward each other. It's quite depressing that "our heroes don't spend half the movie yelling at each other" should be considered a reason that an otherwise average film really sticks out.
This also makes the order in which they die hard to peg; they're actually all likable enough that you don't really welcome any of their deaths. Even the obvious "first to die" guy (OK, the black guy) actually makes it pretty far, and since he was the one who had the inside info on the funhouse (his dad owned it), I figured the nerdy guy would be around for a while to deliver exposition, but he actually bites it first.
I'm really surprised it's not a PG-13 film though (it's "unrated", which usually means an R equivalent). None of the kills are particularly gory, and I believe it never gets any more sexual than a kiss or two. It could have even enjoyed a theatrical release (albeit a throwaway one like Molly Hartley). So many PG-13 horror films are ghost/haunted technology (read: J-horror remakes) based; it probably would have been exciting for teens to go see a slasher film that actually worked within the limits of the PG-13 rating (ironically, the reason Padalecki was in the film is because he was dating the girl playing the sister, whom he had starred with in the awful PG-13 slasher Cry_Wolf).
Keeping up with the positive notices, the Netflix transfer was quite good, though the specs online claim that the film is 2.35:1 scope, however this transfer was 1.78:1. Not sure if it's misinformation or a cropped transfer (it didn't SEEM cropped, for what it's worth), but if it's the latter it certainly wouldn't be a rare exception. Part of my problem with Netflix as this alleged "successor" to physical media is the number of poor/cropped transfers, with no way of being able to tell beforehand. If they really want to beat DVD at its own game, then they should provide more information about its transfers, including overall quality (is it taken from a VHS or a digital remaster?). With DVD you can use the price as a gauge of its quality (i.e. if it costs 99 cents at the drugstore - it's probably not going to win any technical awards), but Netflix groups everything together.
I do have one question about the film - what's with the "aging wood" opening titles? They look really cool, but they have no discernible connection to the film. The totem is stone, no one's afraid of wood or trees... weird.
Anyway, it's a bit mechanical at times, and the fact that it's aimed at teens may be a sore spot, but it's also a lot better than you'd expect given the history of funhouse/fun park movies. I enjoyed it, plain and simple.
What say you?