Horror-comedies are incredibly difficult to pull off. Besides the tonal shifts that the genre demands, they are routed in two very different styles of filmmaking. At their best they’re transcendent; films like An American Werewolf in London and Evil Dead II are as riotously funny as they are deeply unsettling and disturbing. At their worst they are sloppy and forced, completely botching both the horror and comedy elements (looking at you, An American Werewolf in Paris). Often the balance is skewed in one direction or the other for the betterment of the film. Ghostbusters, for example, is an unabashed comedy set in a horror environment, while You’re Next is a nerve-wracking home invasion slasher that happens to be very funny.
The Happy House, writer and director D.W. Young’s narrative feature debut, manages to be none of these things while still being entertaining and rewarding. Young’s comedy often feels broad and obvious, especially towards the end of the film where it feels completely out of place, while the horror elements mostly feel safe. And yet the film is absolutely charming thanks to a well-written cast of characters played by a group of actors who are all game. The result is less the horror-comedy that Young maybe wanted to make, and more a delightful country drama that is a little bit funny and, yes, a little bit scary.
As the film begins, we meet Joe (Khan Baykal) and Wendy (Aya Cash) preparing to leave their Brooklyn apartment and spend the weekend in a country bed-and-breakfast, the titular Happy House. Immediately the film’s greatest strength is on display, as on paper Joe and Wendy are goddamn insufferable. But Baykal and Cash bring nothing but warmth and charisma to their roles, turning what could be a pair of unlikable, bitchy harpies into an honest portrayal of a couple clearly in love but who maybe don’t like each other very much right now.
This is going to be true about all of the major characters. Marceline Hugot as Hildie, the Happy House’s matronly proprietor, does a terrific job of taking a one-dimensional cartoon and creating a fully-realized woman with a wealth of history and inner life while her son Skip, played by the imposing Mike Houston, brings a level of menace and subtle buffoonery to a one-note character that betrays a deep-set humanity. Oliver Henzler does a terrific job as well as Hverven, the eccentric Swedish lepidopterist searching for a rare species of butterfly long thought extinct. Hverven is written as weird and creepy, with slight menace and eccentricity offset by a cutesy foreign naïveté (there’s even a mistranslated colloquialism joke), but Henzler is so charismatic, instilling Hverven with such a passion for his work, that it is impossible to dislike him.
Once Joe and Wendy arrive at the Happy House, after the perfunctory “well I guess we’re lost” and “how is there no cell phone service?” scenes, the film stumbles a little before finding its footing. It makes sense that Young is a documentarian first, because The Happy House works best when his characters are allowed some breathing room and his camera meanders in a naturalistic manner, focusing on the beautiful, the quiet mundane of a weekend in the country. When we are introduced to Hildie, Skip, and Hverven the film tries too hard to establish an air of unearned menace, and the groundwork is laid for too-clever red herrings and set-ups (Hildi has a strict three-strikes rule about breaking the rules in her house, you see) that ultimately serve only to forestall our caring about these people. It certainly doesn’t help matters that Joe and Wendy never seem nervous, just befuddled and slightly annoyed.
In fact the only truly tense scene comes after these set-ups pay off, or don’t as it were, when a frustrated Wendy storms off in Joe’s car, only to subsequently break down. The ensuing sequence is suspenseful and quietly menacing, and it’s the first indicator of the movie really coming to life.
Once Wendy makes her way back to the house and apologizes for storming off, the movie gives us a little room to breathe and get to know the characters a little better. And then a sheriff’s deputy arrives with a warning and distressing news, and The Happy House kicks into gear.
Soon, our heroes find themselves trapped upstairs, in the dark, with only a shotgun with one shell to defend themselves from the monster lurking at the foot of the stairs, just past the light, scratching and tapping at the walls with a revolver, gleefully chanting “fish in a barrel fish in a barrel fish in a barrel.” It’s here that The Happy House finds its footing as a horror film, in a harrowing and tense sequence as the survivors try to make it through the night.
D.W. Young’s film doesn’t really work as a comedy (again, a couple of gags at the end of the film feel especially forced), and it’s ultimately too relaxed in tone and pace to work as horror. But it is so charming and unassuming that it is difficult not to like it, thanks in no small part to a script that is at its best when dealing with character and a cast of talented actors bringing it to life.
The Happy House is now available on VOD and DVD, and it is well worth watching.