Well, here’s a funny little curio to take your mind off everything for a bit. The House, produced by UK-based Nexus Studios and streamed by Netflix, is an adult stop-motion anthology special. Three stories of roughly half an hour each are set in the same house in different eras. The first two have a spooky twist, the third is a more straightforward if dystopian tale.
In the interests of full disclosure, I am firmly in the camp of those who find stop-motion animation quite spooky enough without adding intentional frights. The slight herky-jerky nature of the movement is a constant reminder of the endless unseen positioning and repositioning that goes on. It speaks to my darkest terror – that we have no free will at all and are indeed just playthings to unseen gods, posing us here, there and everywhere for nothing more than their sport. We’re all just puppets, d’you see? Puppets with illusory notions of freedom and independence. Do you see yet? Do you see?
I’m sorry. Where was I? Ninety-minute, three-part stop-motion special The House. OK.
The first and by far the most successful of the trio is directed (using bulbous-headed felted figures that – even without my particular terrors – stand somewhere on the line between thoroughly charming and thoroughly disquieting) by Belgian auteurs Emma De Swaef and Marc James Roels and set roughly around the turn of the last century. An impoverished family is persuaded to move home by architect’s emissary Mr Thomas, who is voiced by master of oddity Mark Heap (and whose presence adds a further ineffably unsettling touch for all those who recognise the reedy tones that have never once portended good). They move from their little home to a much grander, specially designed, fully furnished affair built on a nearby hilltop, where every modern convenience is supplied – lights come on automatically as it gets dark, all meals are provided. You don’t have to have recently watched the BBC’s thriller The Girl Before to get a bad feeling about this, but it helps.
Sure enough, it soon emerges that even in Edwardian-ish times there is no such thing a free breakfast, lunch or tea. The house will exact a price. The parents (voiced by Matthew Goode and Claudie Blakley) quickly become enslaved by its dark spirit (or that of its owner, whose shadowy face is occasionally superimposed over the whole – you know the drill). Their young daughter, Mabel (Mia Goth), remains unaffected, but the malevolent house transforms around her so she cannot reach her entranced parents in time to save them from the raging conflagration that finally consumes them.
There is nothing narratively innovative here, but enchanted parents, the disbelieved or unheard child and the inability to reach safety – however many corridors you run down and corners you turn – are perennially effective nightmare tropes, and to have them rendered in this way adds a novelty that refreshes them. And the design, the overall aesthetic, is wonderful.
It’s a toss-up between which of the remaining two is less rewarding. In the one directed by Niki Lindroth von Bahr, the house is being renovated in the present by an embattled developer (voiced by Jarvis Cocker). We first meet him while he is trying to attract further investment and to repel an invasion of “fur beetles” (this time the characters are anthropomorphised animals – the Developer, who is given no other name, is a rat). His troubles multiply when a pair of supposed potential buyers who come to the open house event refuse to leave. They are soon joined by a host of other friends and relatives. The final scenes reveal the Developer with his spirit well and truly broken. But the story is too underbaked to deliver any real horrors or work as a fable about violation, or capitalism or any of the other themes it seems at various moments to be nodding vaguely at.
The last, directed by Paloma Baeza, finds Rosa (a cat-figure, this time voiced by Susan Wokoma) engaged in a futile battle to restore the house as the flood waters of the future inexorably rise around it.
She has tenants, played by Helena Bonham Carter and Will Sharpe, but they pay her in fish and crystals – unacceptable currencies to the plumbers and electricians she would like to employ. One by one, her tenants leave to find a safer berth elsewhere and eventually she is persuaded to leave too.
This final third is a very, very slight affair. If the content of the stories had matched the painstaking form, the anthology could have been rather a groundbreaking success. As it is, the architects need to go back to the drawing board.