‘House of Salem’: “a confidently staged British occult-kidnap thriller debut”
Sometimes you have to remind yourself that British people were frightened by things before the 1970s. Whether they’re sociopolitical (VIP paedophile rings, tensions with the EU and the Irish border) or cultural (strange electronic music, unnerving children’s programming), all of our modern nightmares come from the Glam Decade. James Crow’s House of Salem, released on DVD and digital by Left Films, isn’t as obsessively retro as some recent British horror movies but it does share a gangsters-vs-occultists set-up with Ben Wheatley’s Kill List, the film which arguably started the current cycle of Heath-era horror. Crow’s film adds an extra queasy-nostalgic element by changing the gangsters’ mission from carrying out hits to kidnapping a child for ransom, which triggers memories of sensational 1970s crimes like the abductions of Patricia Hearst or Lesley Whittle (the latter being the subject of a notorious contemporary British shocker, Ian Merrick’s The Black Panther).
In House of Salem the victim is a boy, Josh, played by Liam Kelly. Josh immediately comes across as odd for reasons both intentional and unintentional. He talks fearfully about “the bad house” and seems to see visions of dead children; he also looks rather too old to be wearing a onesie and hugging a stuffed toy in his bed at night. It’s true that Josh is a troubled child, and there is a suggestion he may be autistic, but neither of these elements feel properly worked in to his character. Kelly’s performance isn’t bad – there’s an early close-up of his hands trembling as he records his hostage tape which does more to sell his terror than any amount of dialogue. But the conception of the character is strange and not entirely convincing.
Other apparent mistakes at the start eventually reveal themselves, pleasingly, to be clues. I rolled my eyes early on at an apparently extraneous line of voice-over, only to see it return, expanded and contextualised, at the end. I also wondered why the gangsters bothered to take Jessica Arterton’s Nancy with them, seeing as she seems to morally object to any kind of violence or intimidation, and was pleasantly surprised when her strange, ambiguous relationship with the gang leader Jacob became a key driver of the narrative. Nancy’s name brings to mind Bill Sikes’s moll in Oliver Twist, but Jessica’s relationship to the much older Jacob doesn’t seem sexual, nor is it quite familial. As the plot moves into more and more fantastical territory, it remains unsettling on a very human level.
The other benefit of developing this plot strand is that it gives more screen time to Leslie Mills’s Jacob, easily the movie’s best performance. A lot of the acting in House of Salem is honestly pretty starchy, and although it’s easy to blame the largely unknown cast (Wolfblood‘s Jack Brett Anderson is the most recognisable face) it’s probably more down to Crow’s direction. The naivety of some of the performances is of a piece with other aspects; lighting that’s a little too bright for a digitally-shot night scene, flash-cuts that are a little too long to shock, a noticeable reluctance to show guns going off or knives going in. (Older generations of no-budget horror directors knew how to solve this problem: budget for one at the start of the movie and let the audience’s memories fill in the gaps later)
Still, if he isn’t yet much of a director he’s a confident script-writer. House of Salem is impressively well-paced for a debut film, featuring a constant flow of twists and surprises yet also remembering the importance of slowing right down for a suspense scene. The story is better-constructed than it has any right to be – it’s the sort of film where you’d happily chalk the odd plot hole or nonsensical moment up to the supernatural, and yet Crow never acts like a man with a free pass to leave loose ends. The first big surprise comes with the unsentimental dispatch of a central character roughly ten minutes in, and it keeps on reshaping its genre identity right up until the last scene.
The occult theme and third-act rug-pulls reminded me a bit of Hereditary, which in many ways is a contest House of Salem can’t possibly win. Hereditary is a handsomely-budgeted, impeccably crafted film with a barnstorming central performance from a world-class character actress; House of Salem is a fun cheap B-movie. But it knows it’s a fun cheap B-movie, and those who felt let down by Hereditary‘s last-minute swerve from psychological slow-burn to Dennis Wheatley pastiche may find House of Salem‘s more modest genre mutations more palatable. Crow’s film begins as fun schlock, and it ends as a different kind of fun schlock, having turned into every other variety of fun schlock it can think of along the way. Sometimes that’s what you want.