Saturday, October 30, 2021

Monster House

In 2004, Robert Zemeckis’ ImageWorks began experimenting in motion capture animation with The Polar Express, which, despite uncanny valley criticisms, managed to do well enough for another film, Monster House, to be animated with the same technology in 2006. Though I had seen Monster House as a kid when it came out and liked it, I hadn’t really seen it since then, deciding to revisit it again nearly two decades later to see how well it holds up. Though the visuals are a little dated, it manages to hold up surprisingly well as a decent, timeless horror film.

For some time, D.J. Walters (Mitchel Musso) has been spying on his neighbor Mr. Nebbercracker (Steve Buscemi) across the street, who chases people off his lawn with threats while confiscating any item that lands near his house. Around the eve of Halloween, D.J.’s parents leave for the weekend while his babysitter Zee (Maggie Gyllenhaal) watches over him. His friend Chowder (Sam Lerner) also visits and doesn’t believe him about the suspicious nature of the house, however Mr. Nebbercracker attacks D.J. when trying to retrieve Chowder’s basketball from his lawn, with Mr. Nebbercracker seemingly dying in the struggle. Following this, Mr. Nebbercracker’s house suddenly starts blowing smoke from the chimney, with the house itself displaying increasingly murderous behavior towards D.J.

Though the idea of a killer house is an odd one, the movie manages to execute this idea to great effect. The threat of the house is paced excellently, as well as the reveals about the house’s inner workings and backstory. The short timeline and the limited locations and casting also allow for a more focused narrative, making for an experience that’s easy to follow, though one still has to question how the house’s actions don’t cause any panic in the immediate vicinity outside of the core cast. Credit also goes to the memorable reveal of the house’s backstory, which is surprisingly heavy and done in a way that only enhances repeat viewings, even when said viewings are at least a decade apart.

Though unassuming at first, there is good reason to stay away from this house.

Though the second feature to use ImageMovers’ controversial and short-lived motion capture technology, Monster House is actually easy on the eyes thanks to its more stylized art direction that does a good job making said mo-cap work less obvious. In this case, the mo-cap allows for some more believable animation for its time, though since CG animation was still maturing then, the animation of the human cast is starting to show its age. Regardless, the animation still holds up nicely, especially on the titular house, which has some very clever design choices both internally and externally, displaying that a lot of thought was put into making the house a legitimate threat. As the film was initially released in 3D, back before the (questionable) breakaway success of James Cameron’s Avatar popularized it, there are some visuals that make use of this by throwing things at the screen, though aside from the title card these effects are executed in a way that is less obvious and still works when viewed flat.

Helping this are the well-cast performances of its main characters, with Mitchell Musso (D.J.), Sam Lerner (Chowder) and Jenny (Spencer Locke) displaying great emotional range while playing off of each other and making their respective characters’ distinct personalities believable. Though some may know him for his more comedic work in shows such as Miracle Workers, Steve Buscemi has also proven his versatility as an actor in more dramatic roles, including his performance as Mr. Nebbercracker in this film. The sound design for the house is also well-done, convincingly selling the idea that it is, indeed, a living thing when not presenting itself as a living space.

Nearly two decades since its initial release, Monster House is an imperfect, yet enjoyable horror film that makes its unique premise work surprisingly well. Though perfectly watchable out of season, its setting makes it especially suitable for getting one into the Halloween spirit.

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