Henrique Couto’s name is one we say a lot on this website. We’re huge fans of his films. I will also go on record as saying I’m a bit of a fanboy when it comes to his stuff. Nonetheless, when a movie comes our way, it’s our job to look at it as subjectively as possible. That was the task at hand for me. I was sitting down to watch a movie that I was not only excited for, but also one that was made by one of my favorite indie filmmakers. Hell, I was WEARING the t shirt of the movie yesterday!!! Obviously, this would pose a bit of a task for me. How does one separate themselves from their own fandom/excitement in such a situation? The answer, I will cover at the end.
Haunted House On Sorority Row is the story of a newly formed Greek chapter who’ve purchased a home that’s intended to be fixed up & become their residence. Unfortunately, the home’s price doesn’t reflect just how costly its past will be to the new tenants. As the girls move in, “settling in” quickly becomes a far-fetched idea. One by one, the girls are subjected to a malevolent spirit that trudges up the dark ugly horrors from their past and forces them to stare them down. Whatever or whoever that demon is, it’s breaking down their psyche and assaulting their bodies…but is it just for fun? Or does this entity have a message it’s trying to send to the living? The girls (and one fella) are left with one option: Lock arms and face hell together…
In internet speak, there’s a phrase the kids use to describe emotions. “Feel all the feels” is how they say it, I believe. Well…Haunted House On Sorority Row officially caused me to feel all the feels. I am a victim of my own assumption. You see, I assumed I knew where this movie was headed. I assumed I had a handle on how Couto made movies. Guess what? I was wrong. In 80 minutes, HHOSR proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that a fun title doesn’t mean predictable results.
The story’s set up is perhaps the only thing that fits the conventions of the title. It’s leading the viewer into thinking they’ve been down this road before because they’ve seen a “horror movie”. They haven’t seen THIS horror movie. The “haunting” that occurs in the sorority house is a platform to exorcise some very personal, and very real demons. Each character represents a secret pain. The type of pain that people either A) bury deep within or B) spend the rest of their lives in therapy to rid themselves of. Screenwriter John Oak Dalton did a beautiful job parlaying horror character archetypes into personal tales. As each of the characters encounters the evils that dwell within, they revisit a travesty from their own past. Within these encounters, the residents of the house cross over from reality into some alternate dimension of sorts. There, they face their worst fears. It attacks them physically and dismantles them emotionally. Each one becomes more jarring than the next. Accredit that to Dalton’s powerful script. A masterful story that uses a haunted house/ghost story as an allegory for how we run from our pain, when we’re best suited having it out with it.
Dalton’s script (as stated) was magnificent, but Henrique Couto’s direction and vision make Haunted House On Sorority Row the great horror film that it is. I feel confident in saying Couto could has a iron clad grasp on what a horror film should look like. It’s not something he’s going to struggle with, basically. But HHOSR sees Couto flexing his filmmaking muscles in an entirely different fashion. Rob Zombie once explained that when preparing to shoot the scene Firefly House police raid scene in The Devil’s Rejects, he wanted it to seem that the police entering that home was to look like they’d entered another planet ala’ Alien. Couto was able to to do the same thing in HHOSR. No greater example can be found than a scene involving Joni Durian’s character, Alex. When she steps into her own nightmare, she finds herself standing before a mirror…but her reflection, though her own, isn’t the same. What Alex sees is distorted, frightening. It’s a nightmare becoming reality and Couto perfectly executes the visual needed to get that point across. Durian’s performance is excellent from start to finish, but that particular scene lingers with you as an audience member. Along those same lines, Couto alumnist (and our breakthrough performer of 2013) Erin R. Ryan turns out another brilliant performance as Sherrie. Sherrie is the sheepish, scared of her own shadow type. But, it’s with good reason. An abusive relationship with a maternal figure left wounds that have yet to heal. This painful part of her past reveals itself to her in the basement of the home and as a result, breaks Sherrie down from the inside. That particular scene evokes an Evil Dead quality, but turns it on its head when Sherrie begins to unravel. Ryan’s performance is unsettling which is great for the horror aspect, but it also requires the viewer to empathize with her. You hurt for her. These two performances are further evidence of the relationship between Couto and his cast. He created some incredible visuals that take you to each character’s personal hell. He ALSO captured marvelous performances in the process. This cast & crew functioned as a well oiled machine inside the walls of an evil place. The 80 minute run time burns by and leaves a potent afterburn.
If it seems like I’ve read pretty far into Haunted House On Sorority Row, it’s because I have. At the beginning of the review, I addressed the idea of separating fandom from the job of writing a review for a film like this. The conclusion I’ve come to? You don’t. Frankly, why would I? It’s my personal love for Henrique’s movies that had me invested in the first place. Yes, I was rooting for them the entire time, but I didn’t expect to feel so strongly for this movie either! It’s a great looking movie with a personal script and engaging performances…who doesn’t hope for that in a movie, right?! There’s just so much more to it than a concept that simple. Honestly, maybe I’m completely off base in my interpretation of the movie, but because the movie is this good it caused me to self-reflect on my personal demons. Did I run from my own horrors or did I face them head-on? This movie caused me to examine that question.
Haunted House On Sorority Row is a really special horror film. Rarely does one pack such an emotional punch along with its scares, but it does at an expert level. This isn’t some entry level ghost story-this is a movie that shows the continuous growth of an independent filmmaker who’s surpassing his contemporaries by not being afraid to expand his vision. With the release of Haunted House On Sorority Row, Henrique Couto continues down an exciting path of evolution as a director. His heartfelt dedication to his craft makes Couto one of the most intriguing, consistent directors in the indie film community. Once again this year, Henrique Couto has set a very high bar of quality. Consider this a call to arms…THIS is what great indie horror filmmaking can be.