The House: Nightmare Meditation

“The whole world is wild at heart and weird on top.”

-David Lynch

Stop-motion has its own little nook of reality where it lives alone. No matter how cute it tries to be, it’s too tangible to be totally innocent. It causes mental recoil at a thing too tangible to be totally fake but obviously (hopefully) not completely real. This is as true of the simplest animations as the most complex – they’re never far from that special feeling of seeing something directly in front of you as though it’s the corner of your eye, that uncanny “not believing” in it feeling, yet having no choice but to accept it. Stop-motion is animation’s nightmare. The shortlist of projects that recognize (or weaponize) the feeling, including the works of Henry Selick (James and the Giant Peach, Coraline) and the stop-motion segments of David Lynch’s Inland Empire, has a new entry: the three-part stop-motion anthology horror film, The House, now streaming on Netflix.

The first title card (“I – And heard within, a lie is spun”) gives an impression of a pretentious art exhibit, where the placard is more demanding than the art. But The House dispels the feeling through texture. Its world is so alive that even its excesses are humbling. Its sheer and persistent labor is evident in every frame of the finished product, its whirring little mechanical cosmos. The uncanny fantasy of stop-motion gives it longevity, with unflinchingly impressive work done in three different points of view across the three stories, each equipped with different writers and directors. No matter how broad their thematic strokes, in the tiniest motion – the sewing of a baby’s bonnet, the kindling of a fire, the eating of a meager meal – the artists are fighters for recognition in their enormous micro labors. The film is impressive, even before it becomes good.

The first story, about a family toiling under the heavy weight of envy, is quirky-sad. The fuzzy felt people have scrunched Cabbage Patch faces and the tiniest mouths imaginable (they’re the size of their agency). The film is enclosed in architectural shadows. The small girl, Mabel (Mia Goth), observes her parents’ descent into material obsession as her father begins the triptych mythology of “the house” as many legends begin, with a bad bargain (he meets a shadowy figure in the forest as Washizu met the old spirit in Throne of Blood). If demons represent the vices they punish humans for, it’s a demon of avarice that moves the family from their quaint cottage into a stately mansion with demeaningly high ceilings and barren rooms. I have a particular fear of characters in films looking directly at the screen (think of the man in the dog suit in The Shining). The House has been built seemingly as a feature-length presentation of this fear. When the workers observe Mabel from those barren rooms deep in the frame, I get seriously stirred. They create the house unseen, shifting, barring the inhabitants from knowing their surroundings. They’re the architects of the world both in and out of it, like the hands that made the figures in secret control of each movement between the frames. The house is made of its existential meta, not only the stone and wood it hopes to represent but the actual pieces of model material planned, made, and cruelly shifted into their fatal destines behind the scenes. Of the film’s three stories, this one is so dark-dredged that it feels like a full movie to your senses.

The second story is like a twisted child of Darren Aronofksy’s mother! and Fantastic Mr. Fox. In a world ruled by rats, a house developer (Jarvis Cocker) with confidence issues tries to show off the same house centuries later to a group of uninterested buyers. One eerily pushy couple wants the house and stays for a while to try it out. When he can’t convince them to leave, the film becomes a hair-pulling (fur-pulling) expression of the particular discomfort of having propriety and being invaded by someone without any. It’s the unwanted guest syndrome translated to endless mental falling, as the contractor detaches into a kind of personal oblivion, complete with an insect song and dance number pulled right out of Don Bluth’s Anastasia (Bluth’s influence pulls more of the aesthetic strings in this film than any Disney memory). Pay special attention to the sparse but sweet-menacing lines from Yvonne Lombard as the eerily stretched-out rat wife, whom you may know best from Bergman's A Lesson in Love (1954). The House should prepare for its role as a footnote in Swedish film scholarship from now on.

The third story concerns a cat (Susan Wokoma) in the same house after a great flood has submerged the world. It's a world that's always raining (or always seems like it's ready to). She has made it her life’s goal to fix the house into her vision of a hospitable future. But she can’t convince her sparse tenets, eerily hippie-dippie, to care. As they lay back into an even quirkier worldview, unwarrantedly dismissive of her feelings, she ratchets up into a state of angry drama because her world is not controllable enough to be the one she has in her head. Where the other stories built tension, this one builds release.

Each tale seems to take less time than the last, like the film is the shape of an upside-down funnel. The House overall gives the impression of slipping slowly down and down into a dark hole, down walls that look easy to climb but are too slippery to be grabbed. Yet it all progresses towards a feeling of warm clarity. When you reach the bottom, you feel happy to have found the floor. There’s a door there that you didn’t see before; it opens to somewhere new.

Each piece of the film seems to be a progressively damning argument against materialism. Capitalistic excess seems bound to be the hidden villain of each squirmy tail of ambition and loss (“A long and sad tail,” as Lewis Carroll said). But it’s also more atavistic than political – the urges that a Western viewer might interpret as a criticism of Capitalism are presented by the film as natural instincts, as much as they were in the surprisingly dark tales of human nature in Beatrix Potter’s stories. It’s a tale of our instinct to desire things, the stories seem to say; finding meaning beyond them is the basis for all hope. No one system or party or state of mind quite covers it.

In that sense, the story is not about Capitalism any more than a nesting doll is about the biggest one. As layers fall off, The House becomes a story of self-empowerment, a progression of the feeling of spiritual non-reliance in a world seemingly designed to deny it. Time spins forward and back in the film, as though the first story takes place in a distinct past, the second in some kind of present, and the third in a future so far away that it could be the past of an even more distant one, which for all we know could be our present day or our far-flung destiny. As it progresses, it reduces in tension rather than builds it – this is key to its watchability. If the reverse were true, the film would be like watching Mulholland Drive three times in a row, at decreasing levels of consciousness.

The last story, directed by the British actress, Paloma Baeza, is the key to the film. Being the story with the sparest horror elements, it is therefore the one most likely to be criticized as an anti-climax of a film that seems at first to be mounting in Lynchian certainty to a horrific final scare, stomach-deep, heart-clenching. Instead, it turns the film away from the torment of living and splashes water in its face. It shouldn’t cause disappointment that it thinks that no matter how deep our cultural obsessions or how unchanging our desires, we can make peace with the goals we will never reach and forge another path. The desire for it to be more horrific is covered by the first two stories, which like life face the inevitable question of all life – maybe it’s called the suicide question, or maybe it’s just part of getting along and moving on. That’s a human instinct too, the instinct to make things better and discover happiness where it was least expected. Lynch covered this in his own work, despite his reputation for downers, in lesser-seen films like The Straight Story and in a melancholier sense, The Elephant Man. The protagonist of the final story in The House doesn’t initiate her change; she changes when it’s the only thing left for her to do. Maybe someone thought it robbed her of agency, but in a world that laughs at the idea that we ever had any to begin with, it gives her maybe the most universal idea of freedom, maybe the only form of it anyone has ever had – the ability to accept such change.

Stop-motion visualizes feelings of powerlessness in a way that other mediums cannot. Every press of hair or clay is a reminder of an unseen hand pinching its universe into place like a child god. The sky itself is lower than the gaze of the creator; each character is frozen in time until hands that do not exist in their finished reality move them into the desired places in that negative zone, between frames. Stop-motion is pre-determination turned into dark material. Its tactile nature holds onto you, never letting you forget the method that made it. If a great filmmaking device hides the device, stop-motion is not a great one at achieving the feeling of naturalism, as most films strive to have. It claims a different sort of immersion, the illusion of the pre-made world – the spiritual obsession of a created reality. No other medium challenges the boundaries of metaphysics by its very nature like stop-motion.

And few creations in stop-motion have accepted and utilized the challenge like The House. It’s not as easy as a downer, not as digestible as a story of great, self-important hopelessness. That final story, the one with an outstretched hand (or paw), is in a sense the most disturbing being the most demanding. After accepting toil and fear, it becomes normal; moving on becomes the true labor and the bigger anxiety. Before the third story, I would have recommended the film for a night in when you don't plan on sleeping much, in a blanket covered in popcorn crumbs, when someone else’s toil turned to new myths has a cathartic charge like the great horror films. But having finished it, I’d say it’s better saved for a day when you have time to put the kettle on and have a good think before doing anything else. With any luck, it’ll be raining outside, at least giving the whisper of the idea that there’s a real world outside the four walls of your house, something over which you have no control. For pre-determinists, nothing within their power brings them peace. It could all be the work of some dark master, hidden between frames, moving them to its will. But if it rains, there’s still something beyond influence, something no one can make you do or stop doing. Rain is just rain. Humans used to be terrified of that idea and tried to explain it with more gods. People who fear the responsibility of agency now call it hope.

Image is a screenshot from the film: ©Nexus Studios and Netflix Animation

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