With Lifetime revisiting its back catalogue with increasing irony over the last couple of years, Netflix has started to take on the role of B-horror channel, resulting in a series of modestly brilliant releases that have more or less flown under the radar. One of the most impressive of these is Matt Angel and Suzanne Coote’s The Open House, which has been almost universally panned, but whose bad reviews seem to have more to do with anxieties about the relationship between Netflix and an older kind of critically disavowed television movie, than with the originality or vision of this particular release. Taking its cues from some of the more earnest, horror-centric Lifetime films, The Open House particularly recalls the mid-90s “Moments of Truth” series in its focus on stalking and surveillance, outlining a horror and melodramatic premise so brilliant that it’s amazing to think it’s never been exploited in quite this way before. At the heart of it is a nuclear family – Brian, Naomi and Logan Wallace, played by Aaron Abrams, Piercey Dalton and Dylan Minnette – whose world is torn apart when Brian dies in a car accident, forcing Naomi and Logan to relinquish their suburban home to take up temporary abode in Aaron’s sister’s lavish mountain home. The catch is that this home is for sale, meaning that Naomi and Logan have to clear out every Sunday to make way for an open house, but also that they have to maintain their new, temporary dwelling in just the right manner to make it conducive to an open house as well.
In some ways, the opening – the sudden death of a suburban patriarch – is not all that unfamiliar as a horror trope, but even here the original nuclear family is presented as something of a fantasy to begin with. With the kind of economy that can make B-horror so brilliant, Angel and Coote encapsulate this in a short scene in which Logan switches between his contact lenses and glasses in the bathroom, creating a moment of blurriness that is then intercut with his parents arguing in the kitchen about finances and about their marriage, with Naomi wielding a massive knife that already embeds the slasher iconography of the later part of the film within the normality that it ostensibly disrupts. Still, there’s no doubt that the directors’ vision really kicks in when Naomi and Logan arrive at “the biggest house on the mountain,” with most of the film that follows simply consisting of shots of this space, which mother and son are only staying in – somewhat ironically – because they can’t even afford the motel down the highway any more. In a very real sense, this house is the film, so it’s fortunate that it’s an amazing house, although perhaps “fortunate” is the wrong word for a film that has so clearly and deliberately selected and curated its central space for the sake of its particular vision. Claustrophobic and agoraphobic at once, this dwelling often feels more notional than actual, full of nooks and crannies, but also unexpected and abrupt sources of light. Open and closed in the same breath, sequestered in the woods but also open to the public every weekend, it defies being encapsulated by any of the long, slow, languorous sequence shots that the two directors use to adumbrate its peculiar ambience.
If the house itself is striking, then the fact of it being an open house makes it even more memorable, preventing Naomi and Logan from ever quite settling in or attaining any real sense of homelieness. The very morning after they arrive they have to be out of the house, and from that point on the uncanniness of arriving in a new abode never really leaves the film, with every night feeling like their first night in the house, which never quite manages to subside into a home, or to subsume that first moment of spatial awareness into a more quotidian and routinined domesticity. The effect is all the more unsettling in that there are very few other people in the film, with the directors perpetually favouring sparse, vacant mise-en-scenes that just as perpetually make it feel as if Naomi and Logan have simply wandered into an establishing shot but never quite managed to make themselves at home in it. The few other characters in the film all seem to know the house much better than they do anyway, and as the film proceeds the horror element – the slow, ponderous movement of some unnamed and unknown entity around the house – emerges almost indiscernibly from the careful and precise perusal of its spaces from one prospective buyer after another.
Despite the presence of that entity, however, which emerges from the basement and starts to disrupt the operations of the house, the real horror largely stems from the uncanniness of the open house itself, which becomes more integral to the identity of the house as a whole as the film proceeds. At first, the real estate agents are quite insistent and even officious in terms of observing strict hours when it comes to inspections, telling Naomi and Logan when they need to leave and when they are permitted to return. As the days go by, however, the threshold between open and closed periods starts to blur, creating two particularly creepy tableaux that escalate as the screenplay develops. First, Naomi and Logan are increasingly surprised by people arriving at the house – or simply being in the house – prematurely, starting with the first morning, when Logan is woken from a deep slumber by one of the estate agents. Second, a series of even creepier scenarios arise from Naomi and Logan’s unawareness or uncertainty of whethr people are still inspecting the house when they return, since the house itself is big and complicated enough – and still sufficiently unfamiliar to them – that it’s quite possible for other people to be moving through it without making their presence felt until they come up, suddenly, against them.
Beyond a certain point, however, the distinction between these two tableaux – finding people in the house prematurely, and finding people in the house belatedly – breaks down, producing a looming porosity between the house and the outside world that’s not reducible to any single entry, exit or threshold. Some characters suddenly appear at the door of the house, or inside, with no apparent or discernible motivation, while others turn up unexpected and uninvited for a more informal inspection, or to let Naomi and Logan know that they’ve already inspected (“I’d feel awkward if I didn’t tell you – we came to the open house yesterday.”) In one of the eeriest and most spatially dissonant of the film’s many recurring tableaux, a car repeatedly parks outside the front door in the middle of the night, shining its headlights into the opening corridor only for the driver to leave the scene before Naomi or Logan can figure out what is going on. For the most part, the entity haunting the film emerges out of this spatial matrix, continually bringing mother and son right up against the fixtures of the house, with the main shot syntax consisting of a slow zoom into an object or fixture, intercut with something happening somewhere else in the house. At the same time, Naomi and Logan just as often find themselves reclining against the forest outside, drifting into the woods whenever they need some downtime, are feeling directionless or simply find themselves wandering away amidst their own thoughts and preoccupations.
Between the scenes shot in the house and these scenes that take place outside, The Open House heightens and intensifies the peculiar spatiality of the Netflix aesthetic itself, as well as revealing how much it owes to the concatenation of glass and foliage so precious to the Lifetime universe. While high definition has been a part of television for a while, it takes on additional sheen and intensity when watched on a laptop or phone, a sheen that Netflix originals tends to aestheticise by way of a recourse to lavish depictions of foliage and reflective surfaces, or foliage captured in and through reflective surfaces. For the most part, these tend to be anchored in a deep green-blue palette, not simply because this is more attuned to the combination of trees and sky most typically used for this purpose, but because these cooler and more muted tones are attuned to digital technology in much the same way that warmer and more fiery tones were attuned to Technicolor – a synergy taken to its logical conclusion on Ozark, whose deep palettes feel considerably more naturalistic on a portable device than they do on a traditional television. At the same time, however, this high definition Netflix aesthetic also revives and remediates an older kind of cinephilic attachment focused on the camera’s miraculous ability to render textures and contingencies unavailable to the human eye, an attachment that Christian Keathley connects to the recurring cinematic spectacle of wind blowing through foliage. While the foliage of the Netflix universe is typically static and often shot from a drone-like distance, the focus on texture is not unlike that of this older and more classical mode of cinephilic rapture as well.
By preventing Naomi and Logan ever fully settling into their house, or conceiving of it as a home, The Open House also forces them to remain as aware of its textures, and the textures of its environs, as they are when they first arrive, producing a film that feels as much about this Netflix texturology as it does about the horror tropes that it purveys. Or, rather, the two are the same thing, as the heightened and fantastic texture of this domestic space makesactually inhabiting it impossible, beautifully suggesting that the very homeliness of Netflix itself speaks to a broader dislocation of the way we conceive of homeliness, and the waning stability of home itself as a traditional or orienting concept in our post-digital world. Enhanced by the rarefied, pellucid mountain air, the characters and camera are continually getting in close to the textures of the house (doors, carpets, walls and bed covers) and lingering over glass and other reflective surfaces, but in ways that simultaneously distantiate us from the space, as well as preventing us every quite conceptualizing or visualising it in its entirety. The result is a strange, suspended moodiness that makes a perfect sequel to Minnette’s performance in 13 Reasons Why, as well as deft revision of an older and more flamboyant kind of suburban horror, one more residually invested in the prospect of home.
Yet it’s the presence of the entity itself which most eloquently encapsulates this bind, taking on two different incarnations that the film never fully decides between. At some level, it’s clearly an iteration of Logan’s father and Naomi’s husband, returning initially as a ghost, and then as a slasher, as he tries to destroy both wife and son in order to resume his paternal authority. At the same time, however, the final sequence suggests that this entity might also be a more literal serial killer who moves from open house to open house. In the final stages of the screenplay, Angel and Coote suspend the between these two options, a gesture that some critics appear to have found irritating, but that I actually thought was the perfect conclusion to the film, grounding the ghost’s ethereality in a more traumatic corporeality, restling in a horror register that’s both ghostly and visceral the same time, and culminating with an incredible sequence in which the entity forcibly removes Logan’s contacts to set him adrift from the high-definition Netflix aesthetic of the film as a whole. Yet the indeterminate nature of this entity also produces such a brilliant combination of atmospheric suspense and brutal jump scares that it almost feels as if the point of the film is to evoke some subterranean violence to American domesticity now subsumed into the Netflix model itself.
That’s especially clear in the climactic sequence, in which Dylan stumbles away from the house and into a bucolic horror sequence, passing a neighbor gazing up in the moon in rapture before collapsing on the brink of a picturesque stream. When he wakes up, the entity is there to kill him, and his final scream is deflected into a series of still images – woods, sky, leaves, trees – that plays as a synecdoche for the experience of Netflix as a whole, and for Netflix itself as an open house. It’s a shame, then, but also perhaps not all that surprising, that the film has received such mixed reviews, since this has the potential for a brilliant franchise about the horror of open houses, especially if the directors were to choose to emphasise the serial killer angle a little more emphatically next time around, or even blend it just as seamlessly with another supernaturally-oriented family drama. Still, that doesn’t take away from the achievement of the film on its own terms, since this is easily, in its own way, one of the most dexterous horror films Netflix has yet commissioned, and one of the eeriest revisions of suburban horror I have seen on any screen in some time.