Perhaps it’s not saying much that Netflix’s stop-motion film deserves a mention The House features the most disturbing, skin-crawling, stomach-churning bug-based musical number since CG Fest 2019 cats. After all, there isn’t much competition for this title. But it should count something that this collection of three strange animated stories is so able to unsettle an audience with something so happy and playful. The film isn’t traditional horror, but it does have ingrained horror elements that can creep in on viewers, just like these dancing parasites.
Two of The House‘s three stories look like they could take place in the same world as Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr Fox: The protagonists here are similar anthropomorphic animals, constructed with the same kind of softness and warmth, and sometimes operating with the same kind of fearful loquacity. But where Fantastic Mr Fox is a rustic, homely fantasy, The House goes much further into the surreal stop-motion territory of Czech artist Jan Švankmajer. The film’s visual style is deceptively cozy, but the stories are anything but.
In the first of three 30-minute segments (titled I, II, and III), a family of four living quietly in the countryside is thrown off course by a visit from some hateful relatives who taunt father Raymond (Guardian‘s Matthew Goode) for the humble ambitions that lead him to live in such a small, rural house. Shortly thereafter, a mysterious, eccentric architect offers to build the seedy Raymond and his dubious but supportive wife Penny (Claudie Blakley) a lavish new home on the condition that they move there and never leave. Their young daughter Mabel (Mia Goth) is horrified by the changes in her parents as they move into their massive new mansion, where silent workers are constantly dismantling and rebuilding everything around them and lavish meals appear in the dining room each night, provided by become invisible hands.
The segment’s message about what makes a house a home is simple enough, as is the plot’s obvious horror story flow. But Belgian directors Emma de Swaef and Marc James Roels tell their story with an eerie, effective twist. Unlike the characters in the other two segments, Mabel and her family are human—but they are an unusually soft and formless form of human, with plump, softly felted faces and pearly little features that are all close together. They look like blurred characters from Aardman Animation – Wallace and Gromit, but out of focus, or as if they’ve melted a bit after being left out in the rain. The house around them is more concrete and menacing, and it dwarfs them and makes them seem less real as the story progresses. The segment feels like a child’s nightmare, with a fitting ending.
In the second segment by the Swedish director Niki Lindroth von Bahr, the characters are rats. While the bones of the house and the lines of its exterior are exactly the same, it appears to be an entirely different place – an airy, spacious home in a busy city. Dubbed just the “developer” (voiced by musician Jarvis Cocker), a builder, an ambitious aspiring artist, has taken out what is clearly a ruinous loan to refurbish the place as a showcase for modern luxury without cost or hassle. from imported marble floors to phone-integrated mood lighting. But the house is infested with fur beetles, which are difficult to eradicate and have different ideas about the place. And that somehow ties into another form of home infestation that the developer is having a hard time shrugging off.
Of the three segments, this one is both the scariest and the least satisfying. Horror stories certainly don’t have to be moral tales, but there’s never really satisfaction in seeing a character suffer horrific torture for no clear reason. The developer’s war against the bugs is full of irony and inevitability, but there’s no particular sense that he invited it. The things that happen to him do not right a cosmic wrong or present an important issue to the viewer. It’s like watching entropy in action. It’s supposed to be hilarious to watch his despair as events escalate and his life falls apart, but viewers with empathy — or a dislike for maggots — might want to skip this one.
British actress-director Paloma Baeza’s third segment breaks away from the repression of the first two stories. This time the occupants of the house – now surrounded by floodwaters in a gently post-apocalyptic setting – are anthropomorphic cats. Like the developer, the house’s owner, a calico named Rosa (Susan Wokoma), is obsessed with renovating the house. She ran it as a boarding house, but after ‘the floods’ most of the residents left and she has only two tenants left, neither of whom can pay the rent. Elias (Will Sharpe), a shy black cat with an obvious crush on pink, and easygoing hippie cat Jen (Helena Bonham Carter) gently dodge her hints about payment, and when Jen’s guru-friend Cosmos (Paul Kaye) arrives , he further complicates the situation.
Like the first two chapters, the final story revolves around an ambitious nerd who is obsessed with her home and watches as her ambitions crumble around her. But where the first story is frightening and the second sad, the third has different ambitions that bring the whole project together more clearly. All three parts are written by Irish playwright and screenwriter Enda Walsh (best known for her groundbreaking 2008 period film). hunger, directed by Steve McQueen and starring Michael Fassbender). And while Walsh’s scripts don’t initially appear to be set in the same world or have much in common, other than the layout of the house, this third segment brings all three into focus.
All three parts of The House often literally have their nightmarish aspects as reality shifts around characters or ordinary objects are imbued with fear. Despite the furry characters in the second two stories and the childlike protagonist in the first, this anthology is not intended for children. It’s not violent or sexual, the usual not-for-kids cues, but its focus on unsettling audiences and detaching the characters from reality makes it a more mature saga than most stop-motion projects.
And so is the central theme of how the characters’ obsession and attachment to the house hurts and limits them. All three associate the home with a wealth they lack and a future they cannot attain, and all three are warped by it. But only Rosa gets a fix in the final moments of the film. It seems significant that she’s also the only one of the three leads with friends who care about her and want to help her, even if she doesn’t realize what they’re doing to help. None of the main characters can overlook the fantasies they have dreamed up themselves until circumstances force them to, and for all of them the house is a prison.
The audience for this message may be a little limited, much like the audience for a collection of stories so dark and (on two occasions) cynical. But the craft of The House in itself may be enough attraction to draw people in. Like so many stop-motion films, this film thrives on its details – the rich textures of the characters, their clothing and the objects around them, the elaborate dollhouse qualities of their worlds, the clear sense of care and time that went into the construction of these sets have flowed. Viewers might be put off by this sickening, parasitic musical routine, with its singing, dancing crawlies and grotesque enthusiasm. But it’s hard not to appreciate the sheer amount of work that went into the crafting of this triple fever dream, and the sheer effectiveness of the directors in creating such instantly believable fantasy worlds. They set out to make these stories graphic, depressing, and claustrophobic, and they certainly succeeded.
The House now streaming on Netflix.