House in the Alley: Film Review
The Vietnamese psychological horror film from Le-Van Kiet revolves around a potentially haunted house.
After reportedly grossing the largest opening day ever in Vietnam, writer-director Le-Van Kiet’s haunted-house tale House in the Alley lands stateside in limited release.
Despite its ambitious genre aspirations however, the film manages to generate only mild shocks and surprises, suggesting its afterlife in ancillary may be more rewarding than theatrical exposure. While expectant parents Thao (Ngo Thanh Van) and Thanh (Tran Bao Son) are preparing their Ho Chi Minh City home for the arrival of their first child, Thao suffers a horrific miscarriage in the midst of a cataclysmic typhoon. With their bedroom bathed in her blood, Thanh desperately calls for the midwife, who recoils at the gory scene of Thao’s birth bed, exclaiming “I’ve never seen so much blood.”
Thao’s post-partum depression is so profound she can’t bring herself to sanction burial of her stillborn child, keeping the fetus’s corpse in a miniature coffin installed in the master bedroom. She wanders their home like a disembodied ghost, so absorbed in her own grief she can barely communicate with her husband. Thanh’s worry over his wife is compounded by labor strife at the factory he manages for his domineering mother, who’s convinced that Thao is attempting to manipulate her son with her incessant moping.
Soon both Thanh and Thao begin to hear ominous, disembodied voices and noises around the house and out in the neighboring alley -- Thanh even glimpses shadowy figures that appear to be children. Thao’s behavior becomes increasingly erratic, then unpredictably violent, as her festering grief forces the couple apart. Neither is willing to voice the fear that the spirit of their unburied baby may be haunting their mysterious home, until a frightening revelation completely upends their suspicions.
Vietnamese-American filmmaker Kiet’s third feature – billed as Vietnam’s first horror release – initially shows some early promise. The opening scene of Thao’s tragic miscarriage, in a bedroom rattled by nearby thunder and bathed in reflected bursts of lightning – builds irresistibly discomforting tension, right up to the blood-soaked outcome. Subsequent scenes, however, never achieve the same level of inspired mayhem, descending instead into intermittent, tedious domestic drama that grasps tentatively for moments of originality, but settles for falling back on derivative horror conventions instead.
Ngo is clearly a competent actress, as she demonstrated in Charlie Nguyen’s fleet 2007 actioner The Rebel and currently displays in Dustin Nguyen’s festival contender Once Upon a Time in Vietnam. Consigned to the role of a grieving housewife, however, her impressive talents are unfortunately squandered.
As her bewildered husband, Tran gets stuck in a repetitive behavioral cycle, alternating between worrying about his wife and freaking out over the mysterious developments in his increasingly threatening home, leaving scant opportunity to adequately develop his character.
Opens: Oct. 25 (Pathfinder Films)
Production company: Coco Paris
Cast: Ngo Thanh Van, Tran Bao Son, Tran Bich, Bui Vaan Hai
Director-writer: Le-Van Kiet Producer: Tran Trong Dan
Executive Producers: Tran Trong Dan, Chung Minh
Director of photography: Joel Spezeski
Production designers: Tran Viet Hung, Tran Trung Linh
Costume designer: Phan Thị Minh Chau
Music: Fred Emory Smith
Editor: Le-Van Kiet No rating, 95 minutes