Gallic horror specialists Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury stirred considerable excitement 14 years ago with their debut feature, the alarming home-invasion thriller “Inside.” They’ve struggled to duplicate that success since, and their English-language franchise bow “Leatherface” a decade later was poorly received, if somewhat undeservedly so.
But they rekindle some enthusiasm with “The Deep House,” which was released in France this past June and now reaches U.S. audiences via premium cabler Epix, as well as digital platforms. This is a simple haunted-house tale, albeit with one complicated twist: The house in question is 100 feet below a lake’s surface. That gimmick certainly adds a distinctive ambiance to a creepy tale, in addition to making the handsomely photographed film an admirable technical feat. It’s a pity U.S. audiences won’t be seeing it on the big screen, where its clammy atmospherics would be most vivid.
Young couple English Ben (James Jagger) and French Tina (model-actor Camille Rowe of The Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face” video) are traipsing around to “super-secret” spots for “their” social media channel, though clearly he’s the one with the drive for public attention, while she only really wants his. Their dynamic is established in a first sequence where they poke about a spooky abandoned asylum in the Ukraine: He pushes her into unpleasant situations on-camera, she gets scared, then he apologizes and all is forgiven. We’re not entirely sure what she sees in him, but oh well, that’s love for you.
Their next stop is in southwestern France, where Ben follows a tip that proves disappointing until they meet a local man (Eric Savin) who claims to know where to find something very special. That would be an intact entire house submerged by flood waters half a century ago, located a good drive and a lengthy hike away. Finally arriving at the designated lake’s edge, they suit up and dive in, Tina the more skittish of the two as usual. They have the technology to continue talking to one another beneath the surface; both also have lights and cameras, their additional filming “crew” being a drone they call Tom.
What they find well below is indeed eerie, a gated estate with all its doors and windows sealed, begging a question Ben duly asks: “Why shutter a house that’s going to get flooded?” Perhaps to keep something from getting out. Regardless, they do find a way in through the attic, finding the fully-furnished interior creepily undisturbed by decay to a degree. Needless to say, it is ominous when they spy newspaper clippings of missing-children cases on the walls; even more so when a nearly life-sized crucifix is discovered blocking entree to some kind of secret chamber. But there is worse to come.
On dry land, “The Deep House’s” script wouldn’t be much — Ben’s observance that the residents must have been up to some “Satanic shit” is as much explanation as we’re afforded for what ensues. Nor are all the horror tropes utilized as effective underwater, given the necessitated slow movement, and occasional visual incoherence when a character and their body-cam struggle against some force amidst swirling bubbles or dislodged debris.
But basic as the plotting and dialogue is, there is something distinctively sinister about a concept which the directors, production designer Hubert Pouille and DP Jacques Ballard (an aquatic-photography expert) realize with an aplomb that must’ve overcome major logistical challenges. Raphael Gesqua’s original score provides sufficient goosing value in an impressive overall tech and design assembly, aided by a few well-chosen preexisting pop tracks.
The tension provided by dank claustrophobia and threat of suffocation, as air supplies dwindle, makes this house a very scary place to be. The ghoulies that eventually materialize within don’t have to be so original, or terrifying — the situation itself makes for discomfiting viewing. The actors aren’t given a lot to work with here, though surely much was demanded of them, or at least of their diving stand-ins (Justin & Thibault Rauby, given prominent end-credits billing). One is eventually asked to do an “evil voice,” and does not excel in that capacity. But if these otherwise game leads don’t create complex or memorable characters here, well, no one could, and no one is asking them to anyway.