Director: James Crow
Screenplay: James Crow
Starring: Jessica Arterton, Liam Kelley, Jack Brett Anderson, Andrew Lee Potts
Duration: 100 min
BBFC Certification: 15
I’m a huge fan and student of horror (whereas other film lovers will declare Citizen Kane or The Godfather as the greatest film ever made, I will always steadfastly argue that it is in fact John Carpenter’s Halloween) and I love having new entries into the genre be sent to me for review. My weakness is for satanic cult films with my particular faves being The Devil Rides Out, The Mephisto Waltz and Rosemary’s Baby. When I was offered the chance to review House of Salem, I jumped at the chance – it had received good reviews after being shown at Frightfest 2016, being compared to Kill List, The Wicker Man and Martyrs. Sounds like my cup of tea, right?
The film opens as a young boy, Josh (Liam Kelly), is put to bed by his babysitter, but shortly after falling asleep starts to have a series of nightmarish visions. Within minutes, the house is invaded by a gang of clown mask wearing thugs who attack the babysitter and abduct Josh. Hiding out in the titular house, what appears to be a simple kidnapping soon turns more sinister as the criminal gang soon discover that they have been duped by a satanic cult into delivering Josh to the site of a forthcoming ritual involving human sacrifice. As things in the house become spookier and disturbing, the gang realise they will need to protect their victim if they want to get out of the house alive.
House of Salem is a low budget film and it shows. Painfully so. The plot is incredibly light on substance and is stretched to breaking point over its running time. The script, as it is, would have been perfect for a short film, but needed more development to be able to sustain feature length. The dialogue falls flat often and the majority of the cast appear to have escaped from the local am-dram production of Eastenders.
Another let down are the numerous technical issues throughout the film – the audio levels are frustratingly inconsistent, rising and falling, particularly noticeable in the dialogue and the camerawork leaves a lot to be desired – the panning is all over the place and sometimes shots fail to fall on the actors properly. The interiors of the house itself are far too brightly lit, thus destroying any atmosphere that needs to be built up in a film of this nature.
The set and costume design is minimal, adding to overriding sense of cheapness of the production. The hooded robes and masks that the cultists wear are clearly bought from Asda’s Halloween range and just gives the impression that they have come from a fancy dress party hosted by Mr & Mrs Smythe of 22 Acacia Avenue. Much is made of the sensory deprivation tanks that the sacrifice victims are made to suffer in, but yet again these are cheaply knocked together wooden crates that would fail miserably to deprive any of your senses. And finally we have the laughable make up effects – zombie children with play dough stuck to their faces and then the climatic reveal of Satan himself, or is it just the director’s dad dressed in a top hat and cloak, screwing his face up comically?
Thankfully there are a few plus points. Jessica Arterton (cousin of Gemma) gives a strong performance in her screen debut as the anti-hero lead, as does Liam Kelly as Josh, although he seems just a little too old for the role. There are also a few good ideas in the film – multi-layered symbolism of the sacrificial lamb (the mask the Josh is forced to wear and his stuffed toy, St Peter) and the idea that Josh’s autism allows him to be in touch with the paranormal. Unfortunately these ideas get kind of lost in the overall amateurism of the film.
As with a lot of modern horror films, House of Salem’s final undoing is its climax. In the final act multiple new characters are introduced along with a few subplots which confuses the motivation of the cult, leaving you watching the closing credits thinking “Wha?” A script editor was definitely needed at this point.
Overall, House of Salem is an example of a good idea for a film executed badly. Quite possibly the least scary horror film I’ve ever seen, the (mostly) atrocious acting, shoddy camerawork and lack of clear direction make this film seem like a GCSE Media Studies project. Avoid.
House of Salem is released on DVD by Left Films