There is an unnerving film to be made about postpartum depression, but House in the Alley isn’t quite it. Take Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, a much darker and more psychologically nuanced horror film. Though a matter of taste, it was effective at what it wanted to be, tackling madness and postpartum and being brave in its horrific imagery. Vietnamese writer-director Le-Van Kiet gives a noble effort for his second feature, but House in the Alley only scratches the surface of its themes and lacks the shocking fearlessness that makes the horror genre so cathartic.
In their Ho Chi Minh City house in an alley, Thao (Ngo Thanh Van) and Thanh (Tran Bao Son) are expecting their first child, but from what their older midwife can see, their baby has already died in the womb. A few months later, Thao mostly sleeps and eat. Though henpecked by his overly critical mother who co-owns their factory business with him and thinks her daughter-in-law is a burden, Thanh remains loyal to his wife and works from home. Soon enough, both husband and wife begin receiving supernatural visitations from creaky noises and childlike voices. Could it be the spirit of their stillborn child who still remains in a wooden coffin in their bedroom? Does the haunting have a grip on the fragile Thao’s psyche?
As only a ripe filmmaker must know, Le-Van Kiet teases the viewer little by little before unleashing the real horror. The bloody opening scene of Thao’s miscarriage is both uneasy and tragic, setting the stage for what’s to come. Then a sinister pall of doom begins bubbling under the semi-idyllic surface. There is also exactly one genuine shock, which involves what Thanh finds when pulling himself up from hanging off his roof. However, that’s where Kiet’s restraint stops. He continues to employ the film with two would-be jolts, thanks to a pesky black cat jumping out on cue, and loud, sudden shrieks on the soundtrack, which prevents the film from leaving the safe zone. Also, the mother character is an unreasonable harridan, until the film tries giving her some humanity. As Thanh, Tran Bao Son is asked to mostly act like a buffoon, taking verbal abuse from his mother and then, curiously, falls down off of roofs numerous times as if he were a stuntman. If there’s one effective performer, it is Ngo Thanh Van and her deranged histrionics as the unraveling Thao.
House in the Alley is handsomely shot by Joel Spezeski, making ample use of rain and the characters’ open home, but to counteract that, there are too many fades to black, even during the same scene, which often hurt the momentum of the pace and the film’s overall professionalism. One thing that remains consistent throughout, though, is Kiet, the director, as he knows exactly where to put his camera and build a sense of dread. It’s just a shame the first V-horror film had to slight postpartum depression with hokey specters.
House in the Alley is now available on DVD via Shout! Factory