The sheer novelty of a Vietnamese-produced horror-thriller might be enough for “House in the Alley” to scare up some small change in limited theatrical release, especially during a Halloween season with surprisingly few other options for genre aficionados. But it’s doubtful this stylish but insignificant shocker will be haunting U.S. megaplexes very long, and more likely that fans will wait to exhume the pic when it arrives in home-viewing platforms.
Despite the bumpy pacing and the routine plot elements, writer-director Le-Van Kiet periodically generates a sense of palpable trepidation during what might best be described as a worst-case scenario about post-partum depression. After a prologue depicting the spectacularly bloody at-home delivery of a stillborn baby — a scene sure to disturb expectant parents in the audience — “House in the Alley” leaps ahead a few weeks to find Thao (Ngo Thanh Van) and Thanh (Tran Bao Son) still shaken by the loss of their child.
But while Thanh, egged on by his unsympathetic mom (Tran Bich), feels compelled to get on with life and attend to the family business, Thao is too traumatized to do much more than sleep, eat — and firmly insist that the wooden coffin containing their dead offspring not be removed from their bedroom.
For much of the thriller’s first half, Thanh comes across as an ineffably comical figure, anxiously tending to the needs of his obviously bonkers wife (who, at one point, ignites a house fire that Thanh dutifully extinguishes) while meekly acquiescing to the demands of his overbearing mom. When things start going bump in the night throughout his house, he repeatedly injures himself during nocturnal investigations, to the point where his klutziness becomes a running gag.
Trouble is, while Kiet may intend his audience to sympathize with Thanh — even when he cluelessly attempts to interest his wife in conjugal activity — the character is so buffoonish, and Son’s performance is so skittishly broad, that it’s difficult for “House in the Alley” to successfully shift gears when Thao finally picks up an axe and the seriously scary stuff begins.
Van credibly maneuvers through a series of vertiginous mood swings, and Bich effectively sells her character’s single-minded selfishness. Credit lenser Joel Speseski and production designer Viet-Hung Tran for grounding all the spookiness in the tactile reality of a house undergoing extensive renovation. There’s actually a plot-specific reason for the house’s conspicuous disrepair, but it’s revealed far too late to be of much use.