Ted and Laura Fletcher and their 12-year-old daughter Amy, have just moved into a once abandoned house near the outskirts of Kyoto, Japan. Ted’s working on a book about the area, and thought a more immersive experience would be helpful. The house is huge and just recently updated, and luckily for the family they got it for a steal. But Ted’s diplomat friend Alex, who found the house for them, wants to be upfront right off the bat. The only reason the rental price is so cheap is because the house is presumably haunted by some very unfriendly ghosts. A local monk from a nearby temple even goes so far as to come by and warn Ted that his family should leave, and tells him of the three grisly murders that happened over a century ago. Ted and Laura don’t seem to care though. They’re not the superstitious type, and besides, they’re only going to be there for a couple of months anyway, so what does it matter?
But the two of them start to rethink their skepticism as increasingly odd and disturbing instances start occurring. It starts off with small things like strange noises and flickering lights, but it quickly escalates to other occurrences like hallucinations and possession. The longer they stay in that house the more it starts to become apparent that the ghosts that haunt the home don’t simply want to be left alone: they want to recreate their gruesome fate with three new, unsuspecting individuals.
And she had such an innocent face…
You know how I can tell that this movie and it’s source material (a novel of the same name by James Hardiman (1919-2006) that keeps getting mentioned in reference articles, and that I searched for for over half an hour, only to finally discover that it was never actually published (Thanks AFI!)), despite its setting in Kyoto, were written by someone of European descent? Because the ghosts don’t kill the whole family within the first ten minutes, that’s how. The House Where Evil Dwells may be an American/Japanese co-production, and in fact most of it is shot in Japan with a mostly Japanese cast, but it’s story and plot points decidedly follow a more Western approach. After watching enough Eastern-themed ghost stories you just get a feel for these things. Especially once you realize that 99.9% of all Japanese ghosts would likely be considered the a-holes of the spiritual realm. Sorry, Japan, but no one will ever be able to tell me otherwise. Japanese ghosts don’t drag out the torment for an untold number of months. They’d off you as soon as look at you. Drawing out the torment is a more Westernized approach. And unfortunately, the more westernized approach to storytelling also comes packed chock-full of a bunch of cheesy westernized cliches. Oh goody.
Yeah, that was my reaction.
But before I get into that, I feel I should at least give credit to what the film gets right, and that’s it’s cinematography and atmosphere. The subtle, simple colors, the lush garden and the overall zen aesthetic make for a lovely setting (it really is a nice house) and it contrasts quite nicely with the increasingly sinister ‘haunting’ vibes related to the ghosts. I don’t think there’s anything about it that could be considered particularly striking, and in fact parts of the framing feel like they were ripped right out of a TV Movie design book, but the overall look is still quite pleasant. The score by Ken Thorne is also used quite effectively to add to the tension. I don’t know if I’d necessarily call it “scary”, but it is very ominous and it’s successfully occasionally punctuated with Japanese grunts and screams, which further add to the unsettling vibes. Considering how corny parts of the film can be, it really needed all the help it could get in the “we should at least try to make it scary” department.
Honestly though, for $250 a month I’d risk the ghosts for this house too.
That said, the film actually does have a very strong opening, one that lays out the tragic backstory of the three ghosts and how they came to be haunting the house the Fletcher’s now occupy. Without uttering a single word (likely because the movie didn’t want to resort to using subtitles), the director and characters perfectly convey the entire scenario that led to their violent and bloody deaths. The entire sequence is beautifully and exquisitely presented, but unfortunately the rest of the film fails to live up to it, filling the remaining time before the predictable finale with dull dialogue, an unsurprising narrative, and random, rather silly supernatural occurrences that seem more designed to annoy, rather than terrify.
And that last point is really the problem that I feel most people are going to have with the movie. Of course, most fans of ghost stories or haunted house flicks are likely used to the films in their genre of choice being filled with rather bizarre scenarios, but The House Where Evil Dwells seems plagued with more than it’s fair share. The mid-part of the movie basically has the three spirits running around pulling Scooby-Doo-esque hijinks, at one point showing up in a bowl of soup and making goofy faces at the camera. But the worst offender is probably the scene where two of the ghosts transform into large, black crabs, manifest a huge number of tiny sea crab minions, and then proceed to torment Amy in the middle of the night while her parents are away. They run her out of her room, force her to climb a tree, and then the two, giant possessed (anamatronic) crabs follow her up the tree, all while muttering in Japanese. What crabs have to do with the overall plot, I’ve no clue. I think it might have something to do with the diving scene a few moments earlier that involved Ted, but what that has to do with the kid is anyone’s guess. The whole scene feels like a choice made out of left field
You know what, suddenly I’m not so hungry.
Black, muttering tree crabs are turning into a real pest problem in Kyoto, I guess.
The film is also additionally bogged down by a multitude of plot oddities and inconsistencies. One of the oddest quirks are how the ghosts are portrayed. They’re shown as a whitish-blue overlay, which is fine visually, but it’s how that visual is used that’s a bit puzzling. The audience can see them 100% of the time, but whether or not the family can also see them as well is something that’s constantly changing. Half the time it’s yes, and the other half they’re not, and there’s no visual cue to differentiate which is which, because they always have that same whitish-blue tint. The audience’s only indication that they’re visible is if they’re acknowledged by the rest of the cast, which makes a lot of the scenes that they’re in unnecessarily confusing. Then of course there’s the ending, otherwise known as the ‘reenactment’ scene which is simultaneously fascinating and laughable. I’m sorry, but it just looks so bizarre to see two dudes with little to no martial arts training jumping around the room because they’ve been possessed by two samurai. They just look like a couple of slightly drunk pasty white guys trying to reenact their favorite scene in a kung-fu movie. I’m really not sure how else to describe it. Or maybe they can be seen, and they’re just pissed because they want to be acknowledged?
The movie essentially lives up, acting-wise to the rest of the film. Meaning there’s some good, there’s some bad, but mostly it’s just mediocre. The ghosts are all suitably ominous enough, but they aren’t there to do much more than that and they really aren’t given much of a chance to branch out anyway. Doug McClure and Edward Albert are perfectly acceptable in a rather dull “I’m a writer and I’m a politician” sort of way. The kid is, naturally, annoying as all hell (sorry, kid). But I’ll forgive her, as her part is small and it’s clear that her character was poorly written from the start. The one standout is Susan George, who handles everything in a pleasing, though perhaps predictable, bug-eyed fashion. At the very least she puts her screaming pipes to good use. I’m sure she got in plenty of practice during filming, since she was forced to do two love scenes with both the male leads.
Overall, I was kind of disappointed in The House Where Evil Dwells. It has a lovely setting, and the visuals are quite pleasing. Unfortunately it’s also hampered by poor pacing, a predictable story and dull characters. But it’s worst offense is that it’s not at all scary, and in many cases instead ends up being unintentionally funny. It does try, bless it, but it just can’t pull it off. And though you may learn a couple interesting tidbits about Japanese culture, in the end it’s just not a very good ghost story or horror movie. The plot’s too muddled, the middle is too boring and it’s inexplicably filled with crabs. It’s just no bueno all around. Ghost story fanatics will surely want to see it regardless, and gore fans might get a kick out for the rather bloody opening and ending, but for the most part everything here feels fairly underwhelming.
The House Where Evil Dwells is available on a variety of streaming services.
It is also available on Bluray as a double feature with Ghost Warrior.