The magician known as “Teller” is often quoted as saying the secret to performing mind-blowing tricks and illusions is to practice and prepare to a ridiculous degree. “Sometimes,” Teller has said, “Magic is just someone spending more time on something than anyone else might reasonably expect.”
This is one of the main reasons why stop-motion animation remains so… well, magical. In an era when computers can conjure up almost any image an animator can conceive, the very idea that a team would spend days, weeks, months, and even years painstakingly moving little models a fraction of an inch at a time is impressive. And the resultant effect is just as amazing: at once wondrous and subtly unsettling, as if the real world around us were filled with objects just waiting to spring to life.
Netflix’s new anthology film The House features a screenplay by award-winning Irish playwright Enda Walsh, directed by a handful of contemporary animators who have been preserving and advancing stop-motion techniques, via their prize-winning shorts and commercials. A quasi-horror picture—more of a quietly arty creep-out than a full-on shocker—The House takes advantage of the inherent otherworldliness and timelessness of stop-motion, to tell three linked, untitled stories about people and creatures who get trapped in an elegantly furnished nexus between realities.
The first chapter—given the heading, “And heard within, a lie is spun”—is a sort of origin story for the house itself, directed by Emma de Swaef and Marc James Roels, a team best-known for the charmingly perverse short “Oh Willy….” The Swaef/Roels style involves a lot of fuzzy little figures, who look like curiously distorted versions of stuffed dolls. The characters’ softness and roundedness would almost qualify as “cute,” if they weren’t lost inside nightmares partly of their own making.
In the Swaef/Roels The House story, these lost souls are a family of four: a father named Raymond (voiced by Matthew Goode) who has fallen on hard economic times but who draws some comfort from his thrifty wife, their smart young daughter, and their newborn baby. In an unspecified past that resembles the late 19th century, this family makes what seems like an incredibly sweet deal. A wealthy local architect will let them live in the well-appointed house he’s just built, with an attentive assistant and an unlimited supply of prepared food. And in exchange…?
Ah, that’s where things get tricky. Not long after they arrive, the family’s confidence is shaken a bit by some strange developments. Pieces of the house disappear overnight. The architect is always lurking about. The assistant makes odd requests. Yet throughout, even as the daughter begins to investigate what’s happening, the father keeps insisting everything is going great… because why would a failure like himself question a rich, brilliant benefactor?
The story ends with nothing really resolved—as is the case with most of The House. The film’s uncanny tales are each meant to have a dreamlike quality; and dreams don’t always follow a clear narrative logic.
That said, the second segment—headed, “Then lost is truth that can’t be won”—is comparatively direct. Jarvis Cocker voices a modern-day house-flipper (in a mouse’s body) who is hurriedly putting the finishing touches on a cleaned-up and updated version of the home from segment one, in hopes of impressing the dozens of prospective buyers due to arrive soon for a showing. There are just two problems: in his haste, the flipper has cheaped out on several crucial details in both the refurb and the party; and also, the house is completely infested with beetles, from top to bottom and side to side.
This story was directed by Niki Lindroth von Bahr, who has produced several whimsical shorts about the freaky problems of furry, animal-headed humanoids. (Four are available on The Criterion Channel.) Her part of The House is essentially a dark, squirm-inducing comedy, in which our half-assed hero is gradually overwhelmed by all these tiny bugs that just won’t go away. There’s also a musical number, which has to be seen to be believed. All of The House is worth watching—especially for animation buffs—but for those who can handle a hefty helping of grotesquerie, von Bahr’s segment is the one can’t-miss.
The final story—headed, “Listen again and seek the sun”—comes from director Paloma Baeza, a former actress who studied animation and then won a BAFTA for her graduation film, “Poles Apart.” Set in a near-future where climate change has devastated the landscape surrounding the house, the segment has Susan Wokoma voicing Rosa, a landlady trying her best to make the place nice for her unappreciative deadbeat tenants (voiced by Helena Bonham Carter and Will Sharpe). Then the house gets a visitor: Cosmos (Paul Kaye), a hippy-dippy sort who tries to get Rosa and the rest of the residents to see that their old way of living is untenable.
As with the second segment, Baeza’s short features humanoid animals: all cats, in this case. The overall style is more fantastical, like a puppet show set in a mystical land sliding into decay. By the end, the story drifts into abstraction, as Rosa makes some startling discoveries about her home’s hidden features.
Each segment’s director also came up with their plots, which were then given shape by Walsh—and also subtly strung together by Gustavo Santaolalla’s haunting score. All the pieces of The House combine to make up a mystery without any solution. What actually is this place? What is it for? Anyone watching this movie seeking clarity might come away disappointed.
But there’s more to The House than just watching a bunch of little fellas scoot their way around a cool-looking set. There’s a unifying theme here, involving characters who are captivated by this building, and who think they can they can make something out of it: a safe shelter, a profit, a community, et cetera. Even when they’re being foolhardy—even when they’re refusing to see how their plans are impossible, given the state of the world—they keep struggling to make a go of it.
That’s another reason why the format fits this film. It’s been made by the same kind of stubborn dreamers, devoted to something they can’t let go of: an old way of doing things, requiring uncommon patience.