One great thing abut horror as an indie genre is that it doesn’t need to be fine art to be fun and entertaining, and a good filmmaker can spin a fine yarn on a shoestring. Eric Hurt’s Virginia-filmed House Hunting is a case in point: an unassuming, claustrophobic thriller that earns good scares without degenerating into cheap, campy gore.
Two families show up for an open house at a beautiful property situated on seventy acres of woodland in the middle of nowhere. The Hays family — father Chuck (Marc Singer), daughter Emmy (Janey Gioiosa), and stepmother Susan (Hayley DuMond) — are dealing with the loss of Emmy’s mother and the obvious tension between Emmy and Susan. The Thomsons — father Don (Art LaFleur), mother Leslie (Victoria Vance), and son Jason (Paul McGill) — have themselves lost their younger daughter. There’s tension between Jason and Don, and Jason sports a cast and a pair of crutches from a recent car accident.
The house isn’t exactly staged for prospective buyers. The door hangs open and the furniture is all covered with dropcloths, but there are a number of speaker boxes that claim to describe this wonderful house that one lucky family will turn into a home. But as they turn to leave, a friend young woman (Rebekah Kennedy) runs out into the road in front of the Hays’ car. They load the injured girl into the Thomsons’ SUV and head for the hospital, only to find themselves back at the house. Over and over they drive away only to find the road somehow turning them back, until they finally run out of gas. And the young woman is no help; they soon find that she’s missing her tongue.
The two families are trapped by the house, but it’s not so bad; there’s plenty of firewood, there’s a puzzle some of them use to occupy themselves, and every time they open the pantry they find seven cans of “Mr. Beef” Stew — “it’s ‘stew’ pendous!” But tempers are starting to fray in the close quarters, and that’s when they start seeing things.
The exact nature of the house never quite becomes clear, but it doesn’t really matter. The bizarre geography is a cute little device for Hurt to throw these people together and start poking at their weak points. And really is it any less a convenient excuse than marooning the Torrances in the Overlook with impassable winter roads?
The story may not be a tight little puzzle-box, but it also doesn’t matter. What loose ends there may be are swallowed by a full cast of solid character work, especially from veterans like Singer and LaFleur. And Kennedy does a fantastic job as a mute.
There’s a lot of low-budget horror out there. Some go for cheap scares and gore, but films like House Hunting show how to take the restrictions and use them to focus in on a tight, smart script and engaging character dynamics. When you have those, you don’t need a blockbuster budget to make a great film.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.