July 31st, 2006

"Monster House"

And, no, it has nothing to do with "Monster Garage"--. "Monster House" is the currently playing animated homage to the "evil house" genre of haunting movie such as "The Amityville Horror" and others. While frequently comedic, the the story is actually quite scary and tense in places. Really, the only thing that sets this off from a number of recent adult horror movies is the absence of gore and a more happy ending than most. In a number of ways, it's actually quite a bit better and has a more intelligent plot than a lot of the brainless slasher films that are being made (and remade!) these days. The protagonist, D.J. (voiced by Mitchel Musso), is a boy on the verge of puberty, who has been keeping watch on the behavior of the nasty neighbor across the street, Mr. Nebbercracker (Steve Buscemi). Nebbercracker is the town mean old man, who rages frighteningly at anyone who dares set foot on his lawn and conficates balls and toys that end up there. The Nebbercracker character bears a conspicuous resemblance to Robert Englund as "Freddy Krueger" of the "Nightmare on Elm Street" films, so it's no surprise to the viewer that, after he keels over from apoplexy, his run-down house comes to unnatural and malevolent life. Of course, initially D.J. and his dopey friend "Chowder" (Sam Lerner) are the only ones who see anything and the adults ignore it all. The boys make a genuinely heroic rescue of an out-of-neighborhood girl, "Jenny" (Spencer Locke)who is almost "gotten" by the house, and she then joins them on their quest to destroy the monster. D.J. and Jenny are pretty good "kid" characterizations, being both smart and bold but reasonably scared when things go bad. Chowder is perhaps too foolish to be true, but RINGS true, and dialog when he and D.J. are sparring over who has "dibs" on Jenny reminded me so much of my boyhood I could not help but laugh.

What sets the movie apart from mine-run horror movies and spoofs like "Scary Movie" is the MAJOR plot twist, which leads to the eventual revelation of the terrible and tragic secret of the house. It really is well done, and has some interesting psychological complexities, beyond the standard "slasher" film wherein "Jason" or "Micheal Myers" are merely elemental forces without motivation.

Like a lot of modern animations, this film does have some uncomfortable overlap with movies intended for adults. Jenny, who is quite an operator, conspires with Zee, D.J.'s teenage babysitter, to essentially defraud D.J.'s parents by splitting up the "emergency" money. (And her Halloween day candy sale is essentially a protection racket in style--.) Chowder climbs on and fools with construction equipment at a building site (aptly referred to as "the danger zone"), and D.J. argues Chowder into stealing cold medicine from his father's drugstore in support of an attempt to drug the living house into somnolence. Zee (Maggie Gyllenhaal)misrepresents herself to D.J.'s painfully mundane parents, ignores him, and invites in her creepy and beer-drinking boyfriend "Bones"(Jason Lee) in violation of rules.

Digital animation is adequate and competent but not wonderful, although there are some nice visual references to other horror and SF classics (Including "Forbidden Planet"!) Lots of fun for mature fans of the horror/adventure genre. I would say, leave the little kids at home.