Reviewed by The Foywonder
Starring Kris Black, Hal Sparks, Michael Guarnera, Chantelle Barry, Shar Jackson, Justin Whalin, Peter Onorati, Gail O’Grady, Joe Mantegna
Directed by Bruce Reisman
Sometimes you happen upon a new release on a video store shelf (yes, video stores do still exist – for now) that you’ve never heard of before and find yourself intrigued just enough to give it a look. Sometimes you come across a surprise gem that has somehow flown in well under the radar. Most of the time you end up with The House that Jack Built.
I’m a bit pressed for time today so pardon me if I get a bit lazy by just copying and pasting the plot synopsis from IMDB.
The film tells the story of Jack Filice, Jr., an heir to a Hollywood Italian-American dynasty. As his father, Jack Sr. (played by Tony-award winning Joe Mantegna), lays dying, he asks his only son to preserve the family estate and to never tear it down. The pact is made, but within a year the cocky young music producer demolishes the estate and builds his “party palace”. On the night of Jack’s housewarming bash, friends and family party into the early morning, unaware of the “monstrous spirit” who returns to murder them one-by-one, until only his grandson is left to destroy. Grandpa Jack takes human form and systematically executes the “guests”. Having to do battle with the demon, Jack’s own memories that have been haunting him for years in nightmares emerge. On one fateful night 23 years ago, three-year-old Jack Jr. witnessed the gruesome murder of his own mother, Hannah, at the hands of his own grandfather. Having buried the event inside his head, and being told over and over that his mother had committed suicide, Jack’s life was one of pain and confusion. But now, after breaking a sacred death bed oath, Jack’s own demons re-surface; and he must do battle with the one demon who all but destroyed his life: his own grandfather. In the action-filled climax, Jack Jr. must take on the “spirit” himself to rid the world and himself of this evil. But he finds he can’t fight the old bastard alone… and gets help from a shocking source: HIS MOTHER. The “spirit” of Hannah Filice returns to take on the man who brutally killed her and, thus, fights to save the life of the little boy, now a grown man, who is about to die at the hands of the same monster who destroyed her some 20 years ago.
Geez, all that certainly makes it sound like there’s a whole heck of a lot more drama and suspense going on than I actually saw. I wonder if that was written before the film went into production, before unfortunate changes to the script were made. I must have missed that action-filled climax, too. I’d go so far as to say the means by which the demonic spirit is dispatched may be the most anti-climactic defeat of a supernatural entity I have ever seen. No exaggeration there; it wouldn’t even have been a satisfactory downfall for a bad guy in a 30-year old episode of “Magnum P.I.”
I sensed something was going to be amiss with The House that Jack Built even before the opening title appeared. A somewhat confusing flashback to the murder of Jack’s mother (“NYPD Blue”‘s Gail O’Grady in little more than a glorified cameo) leads to Jack Jr. (Kris Black, also the movie’s co-writer) kneeling at the bedside of his dying father (Joe Mantegna, also little more than a glorified cameo) as a priest stands silently in the background. The death bed confessional is a classic scene, especially from film noir, a genre this film frequently tries to capture some of the essence of. As I watched Mantegna beg his son to keep the family home safe, his mea culpa interrupted by the occasional moan and some writhing in agony, I felt the urge to giggle. Was Mantegna half-heartedly milking it for comic effect? I could not tell.
Then I noticed the priest standing in the background during all this was none other than Justin Whalin. You know Justin Whalin, don’t you? He starred in Dungeons & Dragons and played Jimmy Olson on “Lois & Clark”. Whalin must be well into his thirties by now, and yet he still looks like a baby-faced teenager. This priest looks so young I kept waiting for him to molest himself. I couldn’t take any of this opening sequence seriously.
Unfortunately, as I would soon discover, The House that Jack Built does take itself seriously. If there was any intended humor, it was so dry it evaporated. The unintentional humor also dries up in a hurry as well.
From there I found myself watching a movie that had enough ambition to try and meld the mechanics of a noirish Hollywood ghost story, Brett Easton Ellis, mumblecore, and a slasher flick all into one film. This should have at worst been an entertaining train wreck, but thanks to a slow pace, copious amounts of pointless dialogue, flat actors, and even flatter direction, the best that can be said for The House that Jack Built is that it obviously had loftier goals in the conception phase.
Add needlessly repetitious to the problems burdening this one. The script beats you over the head with flashbacks and reminders about how Jack was supposed to keep the house intact and witnessed his mother’s murder. After the third time Jack was haunted by his father’s dying words, I was ready to yell back, “We get it! Get on with it!” But get on with what?
None of these characters has anything of interest to say, least of all title character Jack. Everyone around Jack keeps chatting about how much his personality has changed since his father died and he tore down the family home to build his own not terribly impressive Hollywood Hills villa where he holds parties I am very willing to speculate would be considered rather tame by Hollywood party standards. None of this talk about Jack’s personality registers in the slightest because Jack doesn’t have much of a personality aside from being a bored little rich kid. When Jack briefly runs around naked for no particular reason other than I guess Kris Black really wanted to show off his muscular buttocks, he still comes across as nothing more than a bored naked guy behaving oddly. His friends, the majority of whom I would describe as “goomba hipsters”, are every bit as uninterestingly disaffected as Jack.
Maybe hardcore slasher movie aficionados will be more forgiving of The House that Jack Built given how surprisingly brutal many of the kills are. I don’t mean over-the-top splatter like in Hatchet; I mean a killer grabbing a female victim by her long hair, pulling her head back, and bashing her face in with a claw hammer. Almost all of the impalings, stabbings, skull smashing with cinder blocks, and face hammering have a construction theme to them befitting the theme of the film. Maybe the mean-spirited nature of a few of these kills will be enough to please gorehounds, but they should be aware that they will have to wade through a bunch of monotone actors not doing much of anything other than sounding bored while they await their turn to die.
All talk and no point makes Jack a dull boy.
1 out of 5
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