An illustration of how bigger often isn’t better when it comes to remakes, “Our House” applies a coat of professional polish to Matt Osterman’s no-budget 2010 regional indie “Phasma Ex Machina” (aka “Ghost in the Machine”) that wipes the personality clean off this supernatural tale about messing with forces beyond one’s control. The story basics remain, involving a machine that summons spirits both wanted and unwanted to a grieving family. But what this still modest yet considerably slicker upgrade gains in surface gloss and FX, it loses in psychological intensity and suspension of disbelief — qualities heightened by the prior film’s handmade origins.
In their place, we get what now feels like a very ordinary if competent haunted horror story about a nuclear family that’s bound to look rather pedestrian in the immediate wake of “Hereditary.” However, there’s reason to suspect first-time feature helmer Anthony Scott Burns and collaborators may have had their intentions thwarted: The film’s Fantasia world premiere was notably void of filmmaker guests, and some prominent shuffled credits further hint that what behind-the-scenes differences bore unusually discordant results in this case.
For now, there’s just the possibly compromised current cut to consider, which serves up a movie that should acceptably divert without producing much excitement for genre fans over this IFC Midnight release, which bows on 15 U.S. screens and VOD on July 27.
To the disapproval of his parents (John Ralston, Allison Hossack) and disappointment of his younger siblings, Ethan (Thomas Mann) hustles back to college immediately following dinner, cutting short his first visit home in months. He’s apologetic, but there’s a reason for his urgency: He and girlfriend Hannah (Nicola Peltz) are tantalizingly close to completing an experiment that could result in the realization of “wireless electricity,” a scientific breakthrough that would presumably make their fortunes. A test run fails just as they’re forced to flee the university lab they’ve snuck into, smuggling their equipment out with them.
The incident is quickly pushed into the background, however, as Ethan gets a call informing him that his parents have died in a car crash just hours after his departure. Six months later, he’s dropped out of school to work in a hardware store and devote himself to raising teenage brother Matt (Percy Hynes White) and grade-school sis Becca (Kate Moyer). None of them is holding up particularly well; Matt’s grief has taken a sullen, angry form, while Becca is clingy and fearful. His intellect compromised by the weight of these premature responsibilities, Ethan begins tinkering with his machine again in the family garage. It eventually becomes apparent that while it can’t quite generate enough power for the desired purpose, it is achieving something else — drawing out residual energy of the dead in the immediate vicinity.
This first paranormal incident manifests itself in terms of odd, poltergeist-like occurences around the house. Then Becca begins having secret conversations with their late parents, whom no one else can see or hear. That would seem to be a good thing, more or less; theoretically, so would kindly neighbor Dag’s (Lucius Hoyos) apparent communications with his long-dead wife, a suicide. But it soon emerges that not all the spirits getting summoned are benevolent.
As with “Phasma,” there’s more serious attention paid to the impact of tragic loss than usual for the genre, and the three principal thesps playing siblings give solid performances. But “Our House” loses nuance as it moves inexorably toward conventional scares that aren’t at all memorable — even the inky black, coagulating spirit shapes that eventually appear like CGI recycled from any number of recent horror titles. Nor is there any detailed extension of fantasy logic in Nathan Parker’s screenplay to explain or justify some later events and phenomena (like a pair of disembodied hands), which come off simply as genre tropes that have been shoehorned in. Still, the sum effect would be OK if not for a particularly lame “the terror continues” tag that seems determined to send viewers out with a groan.
Though, to a degree, the low-key packaging is apt for the story, one could wish for more distinguishing key contributions — and it’s possible the contributors wished that, too. There’s a conspicuous lack of a DP credit. And while Mark Korven’s score is adequate, it’s notable that Canadian synthpop duo Electric Youth has released a “soundtrack for a lost film” called “Breathing” (an apparent earlier title for “Our House”) that they reportedly withdrew from this feature over significant changes made in post-production.
As is, this watchable but forgettable time-killer shows no obvious onscreen signs of tampering. But it’s quite possible Burns (who’s made some well-liked prior shorts) had something rather different in mind — something he didn’t have the contractual clout to protect after a certain point in the production process.