Studio: Terror Films
Director: Tyler Christensen
Writer: Tyler Christensen
Producer: Tyler Christensen, Travis Moody
Stars: Anne Leighton, Aaron Galvin, Brad Fry, Laura Coover, Lisa Musser, Elaine Ivy Harris, Brian Krause
On Halloween night, four teens discover a legendary haunted house that is capable of revealing their innermost secrets.
You know the saying about the components a filmmaker can use to make his/her movie? It goes: “good, fast, cheap. Pick any two.” Well there should be an even simpler version specifically for teen-centric indie slasher movies. “High-school-age characters or post-college-age actors. Pick one.”
“House of Purgatory” is a movie that would be easier to get into if not for the consistent distraction of a cast trying hard to fail at the impossible task of selling themselves as teenagers. One actor playing a parent would have an easier time passing for the drinking buddy of his “son,” than as his father. And two grown men much closer to 30 than they are to 17 throwing a football in a locker-lined hallway is an immediate illusion smasher. Do teenagers really do this, or is the football in a hallway bit something that was seen somewhere once, and other films simply repeat it?
That is only strike one against “House of Purgatory.” Its other errant swings are more of the foul tip variety as opposed to outright whiffs, however. Although while “House of Purgatory” avoids a complete strikeout, it never fully swings for the fences either.
There’s a rumor in Wisconsin about a Halloween haunted house so terrifying, patrons can receive money back for each level they make it through without turning tail. Legend has it that no one has ever made it as far as a full refund. When things dull down at a backyard costume party, four friends set out in search of the mystery maze and lo and behold, stumble across it in the middle of nowhere.
For it being Halloween night, House of Purgatory is suspiciously vacant. One lone ticket booth attendant, an unrecognizable Brian Krause in skeleton makeup, is the only soul in sight. He tells the four friends that entry is free, but his cryptic description of what waits inside hints at something more frightening than latex vampires triggered by hydraulic plates. The four friends soon learn that this is a literal Purgatory, where their sins and their secrets take shape as nightmarish visions tormenting each patron with personalized fears.
The urban legend of a mysterious haunted house offering money back to survivors set against a Halloween night backdrop is a terrific horror movie setup. The sins of Purgatory storyline also offers more thematic depth than typical haunted house slashers, which assists in elevating “House of Purgatory” above its peers in terms of context behind the carnage.
Unfortunately, the potential of that Purgatory theme is squandered on a quad of routine “sins.” The dirty secrets plaguing each teen’s past and present include a hush-hush abortion, incestuous molestation, repressed homosexuality, and drunk driving manslaughter. These closet skeletons are so clichéd that they aren’t even interesting as revelations, but worse is that two of them don’t make sense as punishable offenses, Purgatory or not. Why should these teens be tortured for being gay or being abused as a child? Having an uncle who put his hands somewhere he shouldn’t have might be the most unfair reason imaginable to have your soul condemned to Purgatory.
The movie itself can be condemned for a curious misuse of an already short 75-minute runtime. The first 15 minutes are spent getting to know seven characters as they carve pumpkins, party with pals, and throw that football against the lockers. Yet three of them stay behind at the party and are never seen again until an epilogue, as the main movie features just four of the friends actually entering the House of Purgatory.
There are also stretches where the pace becomes particularly languid, such as when one of the “boys” creeps around his high school hallways for what seems like forever. At best, “House of Purgatory” is desperate to pad itself to feature length with overlong sequences and pointless character introductions. At worst, the movie has a misunderstanding of effective subplot development.
“House of Purgatory” does squeeze out individual moments that work well. Imagery inside the haunted house capitalizes on the dark atmosphere and there are several creepy setpieces such as a forest full of upside-down jack-o-lanterns hanging from tree branches. Wrapped all together though, the movie doesn’t work as well as a total package, cheapened somewhat by the less engaging plot points and distractions with the staging.
I do give first-time writer/director Tyler Christensen credit for attempting to inject some meaning into his movie. The exploration of the “haunted by secrets” theme ends up being too flat, and the story beats too predictable, but “House of Purgatory” at least has more going for its motivations than your usual body-dropping teen slasher does.
Review Score: 60