A wannabe throwback to older haunted house horrors can't sustain enough setup nor deliver enough scares.
In my SXSW review of the dark comedy Nina Forever (from the Blaine Brothers), I take note of the increasing number of sibling filmmakers and the variety of genres into which they have delved. It’s time to add horror to that genre list, and with it add to the list of filmmaking siblings Michael and Shaun Rasmussen, writers and directors of the haunted house indie horror film, The Inhabitants.
Jessica and Dan (Elise Couture and Michael Reed) are a married couple starting a new chapter in their lives: entrepreneurship. A bed and breakfast in the oldest house in New England has become too much for its elderly, widowed owner (Judith Chaffee) to manage, and the couple buy the place with the hopes of restoring it to its past greatness. Something in the house isn’t quite right though. Dan takes a business trip for his day job, leaving Jessica alone to unpack boxes and explore the house and town. And that’s when spirits from the past—dating back to the Salem witch trials—possess the vulnerable wife. When Dan returns, he’s not sure what to make of this woman who used to be his wife. He’s also not sure about a less-than-spiritual secret he uncovers.
“Not sure” is an apt two-word summary for The Inhabitants. It’s a film that’s not sure what it wants to be, with characters who are not sure of who they are, made by filmmakers who not sure about what they are doing.
To say the characters are not sure of who they are is still something of an overstatement; Jessica and Dan have no dimension to them at all. Once they move in, they become the stereotypical new homeowners; she mostly unpacks boxes while he fixes things. At the end of the the day, he wants sex and she’s too tired. By the end of the film, the only other thing we know about them is that he has a day job and she may have had a miscarriage at some point (in one quick scene, she looks longingly at an ultrasound picture she finds in a box). The absence of any backstory turns the characters into nothing more than paper dolls—flat, lifeless beings. The only other character of consequence is the elderly former owner, and while she brings a certain old-lady creepiness to her, even that is presented in the least interesting of ways, with thousand-mile stares and nonsensical muttering.
This can all be forgiven, though, if the story is good or the tension is high or the scares are effective. But none of it is.
The story does have potential. The house dates back to the era of the Salem witch trials, and its original resident was a midwife who was hung for suspicion of being a witch. After her death, children began mysteriously disappearing, creating more suspicion that the house was haunted. Despite the dull presentation of its history (onscreen book/newspaper text, someone reading of said text aloud, or both), this house has 400 years worth of stories to tell to get to the present, and yet it fails to tell any. Instead, it hits the fewest bullet points possible and requires the viewer to fill in the rest of the blanks. But the blanks are too many and too large and what’s presented is a parchment-thin history with no real connection to the present. (This approach also leaves gaping, illogical chasms too numerous to mention here.)
With no characters to care for and no real story to tell, all that remains are the tension and scares, which are also non-existent for the most part. Moments presented to create a mood or set-up a fright range from boring to arduous. Part of that has to do with lumbering direction that confuses “dull” and “suspenseful,” and the other part has to do with the fact there isn’t a single scary moment in the picture. There are moments that attempt to scare, but even the old reliable “jump scare” (which we’d rarely advocate) is nowhere to be found.
What rests at the heart of these accumulated problems is the Rasmussen Brothers simply don’t know what they want this film to be. I counted close to a dozen horror tropes employed here—from the haunted house and the creepy old lady to pseudo-found footage and a random trio of delinquent teens with ill intentions of their own. Several tropes are fine; but when this many are shown they are more noticeable and start getting in the way of themselves. All that remains are a bunch of undeveloped ideas.
There are a few bright spots, including Couture, who is good in the first half (although undermined by her directors in the second half by being given little to do but “wander slowly” and “act possessed”), a few interesting visual moments, and the inclusion of that great antique birthing equipment. I would also be remiss if I didn’t give credit to co-editors Sean Hester and Michael Rasmussen for their work. A lot of low-budget indie films fail to properly edit even the most routine of scenes (think two-person, one-location conversations), let alone the trickier stuff. These guys have strong editing fundamentals which will go a long way.
At its core, The Inhabitants wants to ride the recent trend of throwback horror pictures where mood and atmosphere are the key component to the overall viewing experience, not simply a prerequisite means to a gory end. But too many other horror tropes either distract the Rasmussen Brothers from achieving their true intention, or attempt to distract the viewer from realizing the siblings are not yet skilled enough to create a complete story, populate it with multi-dimensional characters, and commit it all to film.