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Columbia film wrings horror from COVID-19 isolation

Pandemic Perils


Columbia filmmaker's latest movie House Monster is out this month from retailers and at a special Sept. 17 screening at the Nickelodeon Theatre. Provided

"We're all sort of cracking under the strain. I think maybe you got a head start on everybody." — "Pizza Guy" Cleve (Cleveland Langdale)

There are countless movies about "something" in the house, sometimes haunting families, sometimes lone occupants. I've seen so many that most have blended into an amorphous conglomerate such that it becomes difficult to remember them as discrete entries.

David Axe's “House Monster” won't, for a couple of reasons, be relegated to that category.

First is that Axe's film occurs during the initial months of the COVID-19 pandemic, and is the first one I've seen to address the mental health concerns of the "lockdown." Jennifer (Jennifer Hill), a local stage actress quarantined in her home, is feeling the pressure. Her suspicion that she might not be alone stems from poltergeist-like phenomena: stuff happening in the house with no explanation, fleeting glimpses of something dashing by a security lens. The exasperating whatever-it-is even raids her kitchen when she's not looking.

Second is that writer/director Axe so unapologetically sets his story in Columbia, South Carolina, joining a small but growing group of movies locally produced and set. The humor may be lost on out-of-staters, but local audiences will delight over the familiar locale, the mentions of places such as Village Idiot Pizza, and the increasingly identifiable faces of the cast members.

Heading that cast is Hill, who obviously plays a character modeled on herself, tasked with carrying the film almost single-handedly. Her function isn't entirely unlike Jack Nicholson's in “The Shining,” as her character Jennier, like Jack Torrance, suffers the effects of isolation. Are her supernatural encounters objectively real, or are they products of her own imagination?

Dropping in are Morgan Shaley Renew as Jennifer's best friend and Mike Amason as Jennifer's dad, both seen on Jennifer's cellphone or on her computer via webcam. Audiences may recall Renew from Axe’s collaboration with fellow director Chris Bickel, “The Theta Girl,” and Amason from Axe's “Lection” (as well as “The Theta Girl,” which also costarred Hill). Several other characters — a jogging neighbor, a police officer — visit briefly, but they are seen on either Jennifer's cellphone or one of her multiple security cameras. This mediated narrative groups “House Monster” if not within, at least close to the "found footage" genre.

This technique also allows Axe to function with a minimal crew, with the actors recording most of their own scenes and dialogue, happily minimizing their potential exposure to the virus. Ironically, the film's most intimate scene — also my favorite in the movie — is the "interlude with the pizza guy," which finds Jennifer and "Cleve" connecting at arm's length on different sides of a closed door. It sums up the movie neatly.

In its elegant simplicity, “House Monster” recalls some of the better films of the found footage genre — I found myself thinking about “The Babadook.” I asked Axe if he had any other movies in mind when he wrote his film.

"Moviemaking is a fickle and cruel thing, and most people quietly fail when they try. So the filmmakers who inspire me the most are the ones who refused to fail, and who made SOMETHING, ANYTHING, despite the whole world telling them to stop,” he said.

“House Monster” showcases Columbia's growing pool of talent. It's timely in its analysis of isolation, yet I'll wager Axe didn't think society would be sequestered for so long. Nor did I.

“House Monster”

Sept. 17. 11 p.m. Nickelodeon Theatre. 1607 Main St. (The film is also available via Amazon Prime and major retailers.)

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