After finding out about the short films and music of Anthony Scott Burns a little while ago I tracked down his debut feature Our House and gave it a watch. This turns out to be more a film about coming to terms with loss and moving on (for everyone's sake) than a horror film particularly, although the final act does take a turn for the overtly scary and spooky.
The plot involves college kid Ethan doing experiments to try and discover a potentially groundbreaking source of harnessing and transmitting electrical signals but who finds his life upended when his parents die in an accident and he has to leave college (and his girlfriend/co-inventor) behind and take a customer service job in an electronics store to support his younger brother and sister and keep the house going. A lot of the first section of the film is about everyone in the family being trapped in stultifying routines of trying to continue life as it was in the 'before times' and prevent too much more upheaval for the youngsters. But despite the continuity of existing in the same space of the family home still it is a very strange situation of absent parental figures for everyone who remains, perhaps most pronounced for Ethan as he is both in a new situation of being the primary carer and struggling with it a bit, and of being the person whose beginning life as a separate being away from the family home was suddenly cut short to drag him back there.
There is a nicely sketched in opening scene of Ethan bringing his girlfriend (who his family get on well with) to dinner but getting into a bit of an argument (or rather disappointing his parents by letting them down, which is far worse!) over his wanting to leave early to do an illicit lab experiment after dark on the university campus with his machine. This is a scene which really nicely bookends with the final scene of the film, as the re-formed family in an all new home sit down to a similar happy family meal. But it is also there to act as the prompt for some guilt, as Ethan not being there the next morning to take his sister Becca to her swimming practice is what leads to his parents going to pick her up instead and ending up in their (thankfully not shown for easy drama) fatal truck accident. This leads to a bit of a conflict between Ethan and his younger brother Matt later on, when in his angry grief at seeing his brother getting obsessed all over again with tinkering with the machine that had led to him not being there when they needed him (which feels cathartic and a much needed explosion at the same time, just to get it out there rather than bottling it up), Matt throws the idea that if Ethan had just been there it would have changed the course of events entirely (and by implication have sent Ethan under that truck instead?), and that it was Ethan's selfishness that caused the death of their parents. Which is of course not really correct, and Ethan tries to explain that but gives up, but it shows the way that people often try and search in their minds for a way to find sense of events and make loss 'explainable' and 'understandable' in some fashion, because the idea that such horrible events can occur by random chance can be too upsetting to contemplate. Questions of "What if I had done it differently? Would there have been a different outcome?" can be the bane of the existence for those left behind trying to make sense of the senseless.
There is a sense in this early section of the film, and particularly in the argument scene, of ideas of fate and if there is some ability to avoid it. As well as the snowballing of minor actions into having major consequences. Although this is a story about people constantly looking backwards on things they have lost and seeing the moment that everything changed. So they can pinpoint where 'fate' intervened in their lives but, like all of us, only in retrospect (As an aside, this may actually be the primary appealing theme of the whole time traveling genre because in those stories people get to omnisciently control fate by holding all of the answers to a past situation. Although of course we know that many time traveling stories get more complicated than that with their butterfly effects of altering previous events often having unintended consequences! The moral lesson often being just to accept things the way they are and not tamper with the set course of events!). That argument between Matt and Ethan is really the climax of the first section of the film which has been showing the attempt to continue family routine being undermined by grief: being unable to get out of bed; doing things in the wrong order, or forgetting to pick the kids up from school because your mind is preoccupied; spacing out at work, etc.
Anyway Ethan gets his machine mysteriously delivered (by the girlfriend? ) to the family home and begins tinkering with it in his spare time, maybe trying to recapture a sense of his stunted ambitions as much as anything else. I felt that the most interesting thing about the middle section of the film was that as the device begins to work and invoke ghostly apparitions within the house the two halves of the family go in different directions, but they are all trying to reclaim their past lives in some ways. Ethan is trying to get back to his experiments and ambitions that he had in college and his approach to the device is as a technical challenge of boosting the power (with the help of his electrician neighbour, more on whom a little later!) and he is oblivious and then dismissive of the ghosts at first; whilst Matt is retreating to their parent's untouched since the accident bedroom and along with Becca gets the chance (or assumes that they get the chance) to have their parents back. I do really like that sense in this section that there is the creator who is just interested in (and maybe blinded by) the challenge of whether they can do something; whilst you have the audience for the device who actually are impacted by and experience the effects (positive or negative) the most directly, and add the human dimension to the technological breakthrough, but who themselves may be interpreting things wrongly.
Then once the presence of the ghosts becomes undeniable Ethan himself gets caught up in turning his device from one which has was intended to have a wider practical purpose into joining his brother and sister in fully committing to figuring out how to make the device more powerful in order to bring their parents back from the other side. In some ways Ethan gets overwhelmed yet again by the family home and his responsibilities (to his siblings, and to his absent parents) that take priority over his more worldly ambitions.
But the twist here is that:
Instead of their parents, the ghosts inhabiting the family home (playing with Becca) turn out to have been a previous occupant Alice who was a girl murdered by her stepfather Henry, with Alice seemingly being forced by Henry to play with Becca (and to a lesser extent Matt) and pretend to be their parents in order to get them to boost the signal of the machine to get back into the real world. The climax involves Becca being kidnapped and whilst Matt and Ethan's returned girlfriend try to reach her, Ethan himself has to get to the neighbour's house to try and retrieve the machine the neighbour stole to selfishly try and bring his wife back to him. Which interestingly undermines the neighbour's attempt to sympathise with Ethan early in the film about the pain of loss never entirely leaving but it changes into something that can at least be lived with, as he shows through his actions that as soon as there may be a chance to get a lost person back, he would go for it. I think that the neighbour is by far the most tragic figure in the film as whilst Ethan and his family move away Poltergeist-style for a fresh start at the end of the film the neighbour remains trapped in the house that his wife killed herself in, and that violent encounter with her spirit shows that even if he could bring her back there are anger issues on her part there towards him that had probably led to her actions of committing suicide in the first place! Sometimes it may be better to live on without the knowledge that your loved one that passed away probably hated you rather than conjuring them up again and confirming that theory for certain! And of all films I had the neighbour subplot in American Beauty come to mind the most in the characterisation of the neighbour here as seemingly having it all together when viewed from the outside, but hurting just as badly as Ethan and his family are behind closed doors.
This final section was really interesting and reminded me surprisingly (in addition to Lucio Fulci's The House By The Cemetery, especially in the way that a child is used as a conduit and placed in the most danger by the apparitions. Although this film is far less bleak - not to mention in no way as gorily violent - than the Fulci!) of that Nigel Kneale TV play The Stone Tape. In both The Stone Tape and Our House the main character is trying to research a new technology which accidentally bridges the gap between the spirit world and real world, then somewhat charmed by the notion of communication across that divide decides to fully commit to their new direction and see what results. And in a similar final twist The Stone Tape reveals that beyond the 'surface layer' of seemingly benign ghostly apparitions there is a much older, dangerous layer of vengeful spirits waiting to be uncovered. Because only evil, hatred and anger seem to be emotions that keep a spirit tied to a place rather than being able to move on.
And move on Ethan and his family do, as Ethan destroys his device, they sell the family home (giving up the last tangible connection with their parents) and all move with the girlfriend (whose character is actually utilised really well in this, as a sidelined figure for the majority of the action but probably the most sensible character, and her return to the story late in the film suggests that she is the final piece of the puzzle to enable the family to re-form itself into something new, and move on) to a new place that is both closer to Becca's swimming pool lessons and with the suggestion that Ethan might be returning to college himself.
Come True (Anthony Scott Burns, 2020)
"I read that in one sitting. Couldn't put it down. It's really good. There was a kind of... a haunting sadness to it. You should definitely buy it. Have you read much Phillip K. Dick? He's completely paranoid. Genius concepts though. Stuff that will make you think."
A young woman plagued by disturbing nightmares and seemingly estranged from her mother and left sleeping on park benches and at friend's houses signs up for a sleep study both for a place to lay her head and a way of looking into her problem. But she finds the researchers become more and more shifty and evasive about their true intentions, whilst her nightmares become more intense and cause vivid bodily reactions.
This is a really difficult film to talk about without spoilers, as it is one of those stories where the situation becomes more inexplicable and enigmatic until the final moments put everything into context. But what a beautiful ride! Lots of films came to mind during this: the slowly emptying world of Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Pulse; the researchers experimenting on unwitting 'volunteers' made me think a little about the end of Martyrs, but also of course early Cronenberg; and especially that Ken Russell segment of Aria, mixed with a bit of Shinya Tsukamoto's Haze and Kore-eda's After Life ("You guys, I'm sorry but we have four more of these [interviews] to do until I get to go home and sleep"), although that may already have said too much! There also feels to be a big influence from the 'walking simulator' games (Dear Esther, What Remains of Edith Finch, Layers of Fear, etc) which are all about constant, linear, perpetual movement through bizarre worlds that gets contextualised here into nightmare sequences and wonderfully a literal climax involving sleepwalking. I like the dream sequences themselves but even better is the seamless way that they keep transitioning from the waking world into the dream one (my favourite is the second sequence of Sarah surreptitiously entering and leaving her house with her mother calling her name but only seeing the fluttering curtains at the open window (which itself its heartbreaking in retrospect) before going to sleep on the park slide again, with the stars above winking out before the dream begins), which only gets more complicated during the sleepwalking sequence as the two worlds are layered on top of each other.
It interestingly feels as if it is the mirror opposite from Our House. Where in that film we are looking from the outside in at ghostly apparitions, instead here the characters are inside the situation which seems more vivid than the increasingly empty and devoid of life outisde world. It is as if they are the ghosts walking through a dream of their lives. And the idea of a collective dream state is a fascinating one: that we all share a kind of a collective set of imagery that at a deep primordial level can be shared between dreamers. One of the things that I particularly loved about the film at the mid-point is that it goes from alluding to abusive families and exploitational researchers to a kind of love story as however scary the nightmares are, there is a kind of solace that can be taken from not feeling alone (In that sense I was reminded a little of Paperhouse too in the central relationship between two people who find solace in sharing, and shaping, the same dream world together, enjoying the ability to play at vampires together), before even that proves to be rather illusory and a deeper reckoning needs to occur.
The soundtrack of course is wonderful and really the film's entire reason for existing in the state that it does (incidentally if that particular song seems familiar, Electric Youth also did the song "A Real Hero" that featured prominently in Drive). Along with the beautifully moody original score I really loved that it uses the dreamy Coelacanth for its two sequences of looking at dreamers from an outsider's perspective, which previously appeared during the tiger stroking sequence in Michael Mann's Manhunter film.
It is a relatively simple, even obvious, story but I absolutely love that I have so many questions after that ending. Is her friend Zoe also briefly in the coma-world with her (did they get into an accident together?) and that is why she is briefly around for the first half before entirely disappearing? It makes that scene in the waiting room of the film suddenly become very moving ("I've been coming here since I was 5. Aaron and I go way back"; "I was 16 when I started coming here. I guess old Meyer just loves to see us sleep"), with the idea that for some (many?) being in a coma-world is a blessed relief from the pain and horror of reality, and that is why the figures constantly on the edges of perception and paring people rudely away are so irritating and upsetting, because they stand for the end of the reverie, for better or worse.
How come there are more guys in the study? Are men more prone to getting into comas?
We eventually get layers of dreamstates on top of each other without warning in the final section, as prompted by the shared confidences of witnessing Jeremy's own dreams the main couple make love but that causes Sarah to fall into a coma within a coma - a deeper level of consciousness - and prompts the final sleepwalking section as those who remain of the researchers (who themselves are trying to look for a way out through scientific and experimental by proxy means) are reduced to just following her through the woods until she reaches a doorway (presumably the doorway to death) that she is able to be 'woken up' from and turn away from at the very last moment. Then the return through the woods brings both her and her companions into contact with the shadow figures, who I presume are the abstract representation of waking life and the painful jolt into consciousness that Sarah and most of the rest of the characters have been recoiling from in terror in subconscious knowledge of what they represent.
Which makes Sarah 'saving' Jeremy from the figures at one point, and keeping him in the dream world both an unwittingly selfish move in preventing him from returning to terrifying consciousness but also a way to keep her connection with him and continue their burgeoning romance too. The implication in her 'killing' him once she comes out of the coma within a coma (in which she gets her phone, and thereby her communication with the outside world and her mother, back) is that she has helped him to leave his own coma, and the appearance of her vampire teeth from their shared dream is showing that Sarah is coming to an awareness of her waking world being an illusion itself - one that she can have a more conscious control over rather than just sleepwalking through or suffering the depredations of - and that Jeremy is still alive out there somewhere. It is kind of a more hopeful version of the relationship between DiCaprio and Marion Cottilard in Inception in that sense!
And I love that beyond Sarah's individual story that it doesn't negate the idea of a collective dreaming subconscious that everyone maybe shares and can be tapped into. She and Jeremy (as with the characters in Paperhouse) are able to connect across space and eventually form a relationship that provides a respite against everything else. And the technology is not a malign evil here, as it often is in many horror or sci-fi films, but is being put to a therapeutic use! I wonder if now that Sarah has come to the realisation about the nature of her world and that she has agency within it she will wake up, or spend some time in the coma still to enjoy her powers to shape the dreamworld and maybe help fellow coma suffers within it she may run into?