Throughout the history of the medium of animation, animated films and horror have always had a complex relationship. On one hand, the notion of making animated films in the horror genre flies in the face of the PG preconceptions of what cartoons should be like; yet, on the other hand, animated horror films stand as some of the premiere works of the artform. Whether because of a lack of restrictions on what artists could depict or due to the inherent uncanniness present in the medium, animation has always lent itself proficiently to horror— from the 1929 short film The Skeleton Dance to modern masterpieces like Coraline. However, that uphill battle of convincing audiences of the capabilities a medium like animation has for a genre persists into the current day, with most filmmakers opting instead to create horror-inspired works, most often taking the shape of Halloween specials. Which itself is not a bad thing— I watch the Scary Godmother: Halloween Spooktakular each fall like every other taxpayer— but it’s rare to see a new animated film release that captures the potential horror holds for the medium— which makes the recent release of the film The House even more exciting.
The House is a stop-motion animated horror anthology film made by the Studio Nexus in London and released by Netflix, following three separate stories from the past, present, and future, all set in the same house. Originally beginning life as an animated television series, the film underwent a unique production cycle where three teams of directors would start working on their short films; while also communicating with the other teams to create a holistic and thematically consent project. As put by Paloma Baeza, co-director of the film’s third segment, in a recent Animation World Network interview, “we talked about stories and characters that we were interested in, and we tried to find overlaps […] each doing a separate film, but also sharing lots of ideas. It was completely refreshing and lovely.” Thus, the film carries with it three unique visions of what the house represents to each of the directors and their respective casts of characters; while also creating an underlying narrative that (without spoilers) holistically deepens with each film.
The first segment of the film, And heard within, a lie is spun, tells the story of a peasant family who makes a deal with a mysterious man to move into a new house being worked on by an enigmatic artist.
Of the three shorts I feel And heard within, a lie is spun exists as the scariest film, accomplishing this feat primarily through a pervasive eerie atmosphere and off-kilter character acting. The narrative feels evocative of classic Grimm’s fairy tales in that the film persists as remarkably grotesque and scarring but also a quaint life lesson— like a cottage-core Beyond Scared Straight. The film’s ability to create this allusion comes from the expert set design and art direction, with the opening scenes in the family’s home and the forest generating a very cozy ambiance; contrasted against its moments of subtitle fear escalates into an inescapable panic. Moreover, this contrast carries over into the character designs, with each of the characters having cute, doll-like stylizations punctuated by small, more realistically rendered eyes— even through such fine details, the film creates a subtitle feeling in the audience that something isn’t right. If I were to relate to its sense of terror, I would say it feels reminiscent of playing a video game as a kid and stumbling upon a game-altering glitch or a system crash— the expectation of how things should work has been suddenly and unexpectedly becoming distorted. Scenes will play out as you expect before abruptly putting you in a situation you don’t understand but can recognize as hostile. Finally, the animation present in the short remains stunning throughout, with this film, in particular, being shot entirely in-camera without the aid of post-production CG or effects. This reliance on the authenticity of the image, compounded by the absolutely stellar lighting work, helps create an atmosphere equal parts inviting and malignant.
The second film, Then lost is truth that can’t be won, follows a contemporary house developer as he renovates a house, attempts to sell the property to prospective clients, and deals with unwanted guests.
Then lost is truth that can’t be won reads as the saddest of the films exhibited in this anthology. Compared to the previous short, lost is truth exists as more of a character study of the developer, a mouse-man doing his best to prove himself worthy of the connections he tries so hard to make with other people, only for him and his ego to get in the way. The film barely contains any moments without him, let alone without him as the sole character present, and it creates an unnervingly claustrophobic atmosphere like you are in an uncomfortable conversation with someone you cannot seem to escape. Moreover, the film’s storyboarding contributes to this tone excellently by contributing a lot of great cinematography and toeing the line between impersonal and suffocating— the scene between the developer and the clients in the kitchen remains one of my favorite moments in the whole film for how the storyboards and character acting create a perfect microcosm of the short and one of my favorite moments from the film as a whole.
In the third and final film of the anthology, Listen again and seek the sun, we find Rosa, a landlady, while she attempts to maintain her complex and tenants during a post-apocalyptic flood causing the house to sink slowly.
Listen again and seek the sun stands in contrast to the other films, particularly in terms of tone. The previous two films (with their similarly Kingdom Hearts sounding titles) tell stories that start grotesque and progressively escalate into further madness; yet, Listen again appears more optimistic in its interpretation of both the house and its inhabitants. Furthermore, the animation of this short contains more mixed-media/ post-production to complement its stop-motion work, with the effect of the mist specifically giving an extra dimension to the frame. Additionally, this short contains what may be my favorite performance of the film, with Susan Wokoma impeccably meeting the challenge by portraying the range of emotions the character undergoes during her psychological transformation. As well, the short contains my favorite moment from Gustavo Santaolalla’s score— The atmospheric synths and attitude-enlaced guitars of the track “Empty House” both form a parallel between Rosa and her new guest while also helping to punctuate her frustration.
Listen again and seek the sun— and the film as a whole— express the feeling of obsessing over how our passions appear or should appear; and our decision with ourselves to either let that preconception consume us or to let ourselves grow beyond it. Indeed, The House exemplifies why animation must continue to push the boundaries of what audiences expect of the medium to broaden the types of stories we tell and expand our capacity for better art.
The House is available to stream on Netflix. This is not an ad. I just like animation.