Borrowing more than just a little bit from Vincenzo Natali’s “Cube” and its Canadian brethren “My Little Eye”, the British “House of 9″ has 9 strangers abducted off the streets and tossed into a house and left to their own devices. The hope, according to the anonymous voice (aka Big Brother) watching them, is that they’ll eventually kill each other, leaving only one winner who will be rewarded $5 million for his or her troubles. It’s “Big Brother”, UK Style. Although curiously, half of the cast speaks with an American accent, the other half with an English accent, and I’m pretty sure Dennis Hopper indulges in both. But I digress.
The characters are inevitably familiar archetypes: the Hardnosed Cop (Raffaello Degruttola), who besides being left with the only gun in the house, also sports cinema’s most unsightly mustache; the Angry Black Guy (Ashley Walters), who was on the verge of a record deal when he got snatched, and who opens up the proceedings by informing everyone how much he hates cops, white folk, and especially “white bitches” (a phrase he uses often); the feuding married couple, of which the husband half is a controlling jerk; the stuffy clothing designer (Peter Capaldi); the mousy dancer (Kelly Brook); the Spoiled Rich Bitch (Susie Amy); Dennis Hopper as an Irish (I think) priest; and finally, the British equivalent of White Trailer Trash (Morven Christie).
Besides showing up about 3 years too late to the Reality TV Goes Wrong genre (counting among them the aforementioned “My Little Eye” as well as the “Survivor”-esque “Series 7: The Contenders”, “Slashers”, and the Chilean “El Nominado”), one has to wonder why “House of 9″ was even made, since there’s nothing to set it apart from its predecessors. Stripped of the burden to be original, you would think the filmmakers could at least satisfy on other levels. How about some gratuitous nudity? Nope. The Rich Bitch shows midriff, and while it’s quite nice, it doesn’t exactly fit the bill. The first killing comes at the 50-minute mark, and there’s nothing particularly inventive about it, which makes waiting for it somewhat anti-climactic.
By the hour mark the second killing has finally taken place, and writer Philippe Vidal reveals his thesis for all to behold: man, once reduced to carrots and sticks as a means of survival, will devolve into savages. We’re shown this by the characters hoarding food and eating out of corners. Highbrow stuff, you say? Lazy screenwriting, I reply, coupled with overly broad characterization that results in muddy plot progression. Not that Vidal didn’t try, mind you. Most of the first hour before the commencement of hostilities is full of screaming matches and attempts to engender personality. Except everyone’s “personality” has been red stamped straight from Central Casting, so what was the point? If you’re going to spend that much time building these people up, at least make them slightly original.
Still, the “Ten Little Indians” narrative has always appealed to me, and while there’s never any secret who is killing whom, it’s still entertaining to see who gets knocked off first, second, etc. The first killing doesn’t really come as a surprise, although the second one does. It’s not until with 15 minutes left that the movie really starts to run to the finish line, but unfortunately by then it seems just a little bit rushed. With nine players to knock off, it was probably a bad idea to be cheap with the violence. This is, after all, a genre entry, and no amount of artsy slow montage and camera angles by director Steven Monroe will change the film’s pedigree.
Another point of contention is the Big Brother technology. For a guy who has managed to arrange the kidnapping of 9 people and “fixed it” so that no one will miss them, Big Brother sure has one lousy camera setup. The film constantly cuts to a live feed from various hidden cameras inside the house, but the shots are grainy and looks like the product of $5 dollar webcams bought from someone’s garage. If your pleasure is derived from watching people kill each other, wouldn’t you want to see it as clearly as possible, instead of in heavily pixilated webcam quality? Everytime the film cuts to the camera’s POV, the characters within frame look like moving black blotches instead of people.
At 90 minutes, there’s really only about 30 minutes of “House of 9″ that’s worth paying attention to. The rest of the film’s running time falls prey to plot and character set-up, namely the script’s idea of character development, which generally involves people screaming at each other and establishing their clich’d personalities. The Angry Black Guy is very angry; the Controlling Cop is very controlling; the Passive Girl is very passive; and the Rich Spoiled Bitch is — well, you get the idea. The film offers up a Twist Ending, but that’s to be expected. These movies all but require Twist Endings, and “House of 9″ certainly delivers on that unnecessary criteria.
As a late entry into the Reality TV Gone Wrong genre, “House of 9″ doesn’t really do anything to warrant a recommendation. The characters are stock, and the first half is liable to annoy rather than entertain. Director Steven Monroe almost has enough talent to stretch what is essentially a 30-minute movie into 90 — almost. It’s not his fault, though, as the scrip by Vidal all but sinks the enterprise at the word “Go”. If anything, “House of 9″ has the vibe of a film written around the year 2000, when the Reality TV craze was just picking up steam. In 2005, it comes across as very late to the party, and as a result, superfluous. And yet, I like the “Ten Little Indians” approach, and always have, which is why “House of 9″ gets an extra half star.
Steven R. Monroe (director) / Philippe Vidal (screenplay)
CAST: Dennis Hopper …. Father Michael
Kelly Brook …. Lea
Hippolyte Girardot …. Francis
Susie Amy …. Claire
Peter Capaldi …. Max
Morven Christie …. Shona
Ashley Walters …. Al B
Julienne Davis …. Cynthia
Raffaello Degruttola …. Jay