111 mins | Aaron and Austin Keeling | (USA) | 2015
The House on Pine Street now ranks in my top 3 independent horror films of 2015, just below Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation and just above Perry Blackshear’s They Look Like People (both reviewed here).
Synopsis: A young couple, Jenny (Emily Goss) and Luke (Taylor Bottles), move from Chicago back to Jenny’s hometown in Kansas. Jenny is seven months pregnant and is recovering from some kind of mental breakdown involving her pregnancy (at least, that’s what her husband and mother think). It becomes increasingly clear that Jenny is not happy—not happy to be back in Kansas, not happy to be in the same town as her overbearing mother, Meredith (Cathy Barnett), not happy to have left her life in Chicago, and not happy about to be pregnant. Soon strange things start happening in the house on Pine Street.
Written by Natalie Jones, with the collaboration of Austin and Aaron Keeling, who also directed, The House on Pine Street is a truly independent production, made by graduates of the University of Kansas and the University of Southern California, all under the age of twenty-four. During the nineteen-day shoot, the cast and crew lived in the “haunted” house in which they were filming, conditions reminiscent of the production of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.[i]
The House on Pine Street is a classic supernatural story. Among the many exceptional qualities of this film is the way it evokes predecessors without ever leaning on them too heavily. For me, the two main reference points for the film are Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892), and Shirley Jackson’s novel, The Haunting of Hill House (1959). There are some obvious similarities: the narrator’s sister-in-law in Gilman’s story is called Jennie—and the nursery in the house on Pine Street is painted yellow. The names of two characters in the film evoke Jackson’s novel: the “medium” Walter Vance, in the film, shares a last name with Eleanor Vance, the protagonist of The Haunting of Hill House; and one of the main characters in the novel is called Luke, like Jenny’s husband in the film.
But beyond these superficial evocations, The House on Pine Street is reminiscent of Gilman’s and Jackson’s brilliant works of fiction in that, like them, it adeptly walks the line between the supernatural and the psychological. For almost all of the film, it is unclear whether Jenny is experiencing autonomous supernatural phenomena or whether her deep unhappiness, centered on her pregnancy, is manifesting itself in the world around her. Are the “ghosts” of Pine Street independent of Jenny, in other words, or dependent on her psychological distress? As Jenny says at one point, in words that could have been spoken by Shirley Jackson’s Eleanor Vance: “It’s the house. It’s in my head.” Is it in her head? And what does that mean, anyway? Does it mean that she’s inventing things—or that the house itself has invaded her head?
This question is, of course, at the heart of both Gilman’s story and Jackson’s novel—each of which, like The House on Pine Street, focuses on a deeply disturbed female protagonist. In all cases, too, the problems of the main character are bound up with both femininity and motherhood—being a mother, having a mother, dealing with the complicated emotions of mother-daughter bonds. The House on Pine Street suggests Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968), moreover, as well as Gilman’s story, in that it centrally takes up the ways in which women seem to lose control over their body once they become pregnant. Jenny’s mother and husband (and even her best friend) are frequently shot together in ways that suggest they are conspiring against her, more concerned with the baby than with her. It’s precisely this lack of recognition of her autonomy—and her desires, her needs—that Jenny struggles with, and rebels against, during her pregnancy, and which may well be the true source of horror in the film.
Beyond the way it expertly evokes other stories and interweaves a feminist sub-plot centered on motherhood, The House on Pine Street is just plain scary—the kind of film that makes you suddenly attuned to every noise around you and that makes you jump at shadows. The frightening moments in the film are all understated, suggesting horrors without showing too much—and many of the eerie moments aren’t even necessarily supernatural, involving, instead, Jenny’s interaction with those around her. People she doesn’t know stare at her, almost with hostility, again raising the questions surrounding her sanity, whether her view of the world is paranoid.
My only problem with the film centered on the “medium” Walter Vance (Jim Korinke). Too much of the film centered on his explanations of things, which were heavy-handed, weighing the film down. Walter’s paradoxical purpose, it seemed, was to explain quite directly the notion that some things can’t be explained. As he says about halfway through the film: “the very definition of paranormal is that which cannot be explained,” that which is “outside of our understanding, our world. It’s the unknown. That’s why it’s so terrifying.” This much explanation is (arguably) okay—although I think the film had already done a great job of showing us this definition of the paranormal (so we didn’t need to be told). But then Walter comes back in toward the end of the film and offers a more extended exposition of what’s going on—a scene which was definitely unnecessary. He tries to explain an ambiguity that is more effectively revealed (and has been more effectively revealed) by the narrative itself.
Walter’s explanation near the end, moreover, delays the final couple of scenes which are very intriguing, and the perfect conclusion to the film. They continue the central ambiguity of the film. How much of what happens is the result of independent supernatural forces—and how much is willed by Jenny herself? I’m honestly not sure I know.
[i] See http://www.thehouseonpinestreet.com/