film Review

Hulu’s “Tree house” sacrifices story for social justice narrative

While watching another show on Hulu, my girlfriend and I happened across a trailer for Into the Dark: Treehouse.

It looked promising; horror being my absolute favorite genre to watch. Present we’re all of the elements of a good scary story in the making. The setting was vaguely pastoral, with a giant, secluded house as the nexus. The kind of place where they can’t hear you scream, at least I hoped. What were those ominous masked creatures? Who was that blind butler, and what’s her deal? There were so many questions posed in the ad for which I was compelled to find answers. And we saw a familiar face too, in Jimmi Simpson (It’s always Sunny in Philadelphia, Westworld); an actor that I knew to be proficient in the realms of both drama and comedy. It all lured us in. Trailer mission accomplished.

There was a lot of good stuff going on in the beginning of the movie. Peter (played by Mr. Simpson) seemed to have varied layers of motivations and personality traits. He is a multi-dimensional character, and we see this from the very inception of the film. He is often rude and demanding with his staff, yet warm and caring with his daughter and sister. He is all at once demeaning and inexplicably charming. His dialogue plays quick, and it only occasionally suffers under the weight of how clever the writers must think they are. There is an improvised intellectualism to it, and it gives the character a spry, quick-witted sensibility.

The beginning quarter hour, as well, featured a natural use of subtle exposition. Drip by drip, we pieced together new points of contention, influences, and locales that are meaningful to the advancement of the main “protagonist’s” story. Each little parcel of information builds the foundation for the unease that is essential for an effective horror flick.

The secondary and ancillary characters all pushed toward that objective too. There was the odd bait shop attendant Lonnie; the cheeky, haunted maid Agnes, who went around dropping cryptic omens and allusions; and the stranded bachelorette party, complete with a perspective love interest, in Kara Wheeler (Julianna Guill). The house had the shadow of a relatively recently deceased father over it, complete with his morbid works of art (a hobby he had taken up in his final years). A father with which Peter had become estranged because of some unspoken conflict, leaving room for an opportunity to expand into that narrative.

Without dealing too much into the plot–suffice it to say that Peter, after a night of heavy inebriation and having hosted the stranded bachelorette party for a dinner, wakes up to find one of the girls in the bed. Having been awakened by a strange noise, he goes downstairs to witness a peacock strutting around near a blood-soaked totem in the basement. Not entirely as freaked out as he should have been, he then returns upstairs to the, now-empty, bedroom. After being menaced by a very frightening looking masked creature, and losing control of his motor functions, he is dragged into a chamber and chained to a bed; falling into unconsciousness in the process.

And then we hit the 45 minute mark, and stuff gets weird.

When he wakes up, Peter finds himself beset with the, now unmasked, faces of his would-be assailants. It is the party of women, themselves; headed up by the mother of the bride to be. They take turns accosting him, revealing the fact that they held him responsible for some unsolicited sexual harassment that led one of their sisters to commit suicide. This is a character that really only has a very brief reference point in the movie, outside the bounds of any context. They then go on to just…expose the motivations of all of their characters, one after another.

The dialogue and the acting also get really odd here. At one point there is this big setup tag-line where Peter exclaims something to the effect of, “You’re not going to get away with this, you angry bitches…” to which the women proclaim “we’re not angry bitches, we’re angry witches.” Yikes.

Later on, the mother and the daughter of the coven (played by Mary McCormack and Shaunette Renée Wilson) do this kind of scene study exercise at the foot of Peter’s bed. It was supposed to expose the audience the details of how they say he sexually abused her sister, in a weird, impromptu actor’s studio facsimile. It was cringe-y, and bad…and the director should feel bad. That’s about the moment that my girlfriend turned to me, and we both realized that we were watching some kind of Buzzfeed #metoo revenge porn, instead of a horror film. So we just turned it off.

Now, to be fair, I don’t know what happened in the remaining 35-40 minutes of the movie. The director (James Roday) could have turned it all around, re-injected some semblance of mystery and suspense, and brought his Stanley Kubrik ‘a-game’. It’s not likely, but it can happen…anything can happen folks. The point is that my girlfriend and I will never know. We felt a bit duped after that scene…like Hulu had been cat-fishing us for a half hour. Which brings me to the point of this rant —

How you market a movie matters!

It super does. I am a liberal-ish guy, and we are all down with equality and accountability in the Impresa Media community-sphere. We are here for it.

But if a studio markets a movie as a horror, then there are certain expectations that come along with the experience of watching that kind of film. The narrative exists to inform the story in this genre; not the other way around. The progression of a horror is more thrilling when the audience knows less. We are scared of what we don’t know: where the monster is in the woods, why someone may be coming after you, what could be hiding just beyond the next corner. These are important to withhold from the audience for as long as practically possible, to create a feeling of suspense. This was more like a coven of Doctor Nos strapping a sex-offender proxy James Bond to a chair; telling him how and why they are going to kill him

Now, you can argue…Cullen, you are a white ‘cis’ male. Your opinions on this matter aren’t as valuable as those of the disaffected people in these situations. You can argue that perhaps I wasn’t the target audience to which this film was intending to appeal. That I wasn’t the subject for which this movie’s catharsis was aimed. But that’s just the point.

How was anybody supposed to know? There wasn’t any inclination in the trailer that this was the purpose of the film. My Dominican, Afro-mestizo girlfriend didn’t take much to the twist either; she being subject to the kind of public harassment by men that is encountered by any number of women on a daily basis.

The experience was akin to seeing a trailer for the sword-wielding, ass-kicking heroine of Kill Bill…only to find out that the movie ends up being about the misadventures of a forty year-old accountant in Queens, halfway through the movie. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it isn’t really what anyone came to see. But what do I know.

Did you enjoy this piece? Have an arts related issue or comment that you’d like to contribute? Let me know in the Contact portion of the blog!

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