Monday’s Movie You Might Have Missed: The House at the End of Time
Hey all. I’m rolling out a new feature: every Monday, I’m going to highlight a movie worth seeing that might be new to you. There’s not going to be a strict formula to these choices. These will be films I enjoy that I want to spread the word about, that perhaps you haven’t seen and I hope you will enjoy.
Let’s kick this off with my favorite genre, horror.
The House at the End of Time (original title: La casa del fin de los tiempos) is now available on Netflix. This nimble little haunted house movie, written and directed by Alejandro Hidalgo, was a massive hit in its home nation of Venezuela, and made some rumblings on the horror festival circuit in the US.
Most horror is paint-by-numbers, with no personality, never mind scares. Personality can go a long way in making a horror film worthwhile. What are the horror films you return to long after you know every shock and fright like a loved one? Why can I watch The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, You’re Next, or Psycho as a ritual and never grow tired of them? Well, many reasons, but the simplest answer is that they all have a real story to tell, not just a slideshow of blood. They all display passion behind the camera. That passion is what makes The House at the End of Time so entertaining.
The film opens right in the middle of the action: a woman comes to in the middle of a pile of broken glass, her face cut. She grabs a large shard for protection and heads to the basement. Many jump scares and violin stings ensue. Let me tell you, I have never heard violin stings in a movie try quite so hard. They linger and swerve like they’re trying to outlast the jumps they’re meant to highlight, as if auditioning to be part of a romance next.
The woman, named Dulce (Ruddy Rodriguez), finds her husband stabbed to death in the basement. One of her sons appears in the far corner, reaches out to her, and then disappears. She is charged for their murders, found guilty, and finally emerges 30 years later on a compassionate release. She is now old, weak, and looking simply to understand what happened that night.
What happens next contains a lot of familiar ingredients. A kindly young priest (Guillermo Garcia) offers her guidance; spiritual at first, which she rebuffs, and then more practical, as he heads to the library to find out more information about this house she claims did the deed she was convicted for.
The film goes back and forth between the present day; as Dulce explores her home, which is as on the verge of collapse as she is; and 30 years before, in the days leading up to her husband’s death and her son’s disappearance. We learn sinister details about the home, involving Freemasons and possibly evil spirits and definitely creepy old women with frightening messages. There is nothing really here we haven’t seen before, but there is an earnest energy driving the narrative. Its main story is broad, but it gets the little details right; the conversations between Dulce and the priest, for example, could be the sort of rote butting of heads we have come to expect from the movies when someone with no faith talks to a true believer. But they quickly realize where they both stand and how he can be of best use to her. They form an honest relationship, not a series of arbitrary obstacles.
Other scenes in the film wouldn’t be out of place in a domestic drama, which further adds to the film’s substance. An extended sequence shows her seeing her two sons, Leopoldo (Rosmel Bustamante) and Rodrigo (Héctor Mercado), off in the morning before they go out with their friends. The boys eat breakfast, promise Dulce they’ll be back before dark, and proceed to have a day’s worth of shenanigans with their friends, playing baseball, pranking rich men, and picking silly fights over who has a crush on whom. The movie momentarily feels like a low-key family comedy. The boys lose track of time and arrive home hours late, bracing themselves for their mother’s fury. Instead Dulce greets them warmly, sends them to bed quickly. We wonder why she’s not more upset. We find out when one of them tells her he’s hungry. She has no response. The meaning is clear: they can’t afford supper, and her guilt about this hangs over all else. Later, Dulce bitterly chides her husband Juan Jose (Gonzalo Hubero) for not working hard enough to provide for their children. We learn a bit about how they ended up in this house, how her husband has struggled to find work… or perhaps has avoided looking hard enough. The flow from the beginning of the day to the end is thematically seamless. The long, jolly buildup to a sad jolt of a payoff ends up telling us a lot about this family, their relationships with one another, and the tensions under their roof. It’s the sort of character driven exposition that horror films rarely provide. In turn, having a deeper knowledge of the characters makes the climactic scenes later in the film, when the frayed ropes holding the family together finally snap, significantly more effective. A man with a knife can be scary, but not as chilling as a man looking at his own children with seething contempt.
The film is not quite to smooth when it switches into horror mode. It telegraphs important details by withholding them; when Dulce gets a note that she hides immediately after reading it, we quickly surmise what’s in that note based on what we already know about the plot. By the time it’s revealed it’s meant to be a shock, but the payoff comes far too late to have the desired effect. Other plot details are shoehorned into the very end of the film, some of them not remotely necessary. At what point does knowing the backstory of the house and its original owners (spoiler: it has a reputation) become too much telling in place of showing? There’s a scary scene involving a fortune teller, but it overplays its hand, more than toeing the ever present line between horror and camp. There’s a kitchen sink quality to this movie. Writer/director Alejandro Hidalgo seems disinterested in cutting out ideas to make things more cohesive; some he just trims until they’re dangling there with no apparent use, because he couldn’t bring himself to cut them off entirely.
Still, Hidalgo’s story and style are relentlessly energetic. The film takes a turn about two-thirds of the way through that genuinely surprised me. Hell, it delighted me. Plot twists are too often arbitrary and superficial. This one needs the full remaining half-hour for the film to fully explain. Yes, it got there by withholding key bits of information that would have ruined the surprise. It doesn’t play fair with its information, but in this case I didn’t mind so much. Movies like this have the appeal of a street magician. We know we’re being had. We still want to see what the grand finale has in store. The House at the End of Time earns its finale. It pulls us into a world that we can relate to, gives us characters who feel drawn from real life, and throws them into a blender of phantasmagoric bliss. Perhaps this review has gone on too long: that sentence alone should tell you whether or not you’ll want to see this movie. I hope, for your sake, that it does.