Stop-motion animation is such a laborious method of bringing a story to life that the style has been dominated by the usual big hitters for years.
Aardman Animation (Wallace and Gromit, Shaun The Sheep) brings us delightful warmth, and Laika Studios frequently bring life to the magical (Coraline, Kubo and the Two Strings).
Yet Netflix has turned to stop-motion, with disquieting effect, for a horror infused anthology in The House.
Centred around a grandly designed house that comes to dominate the lives of three different sets of people, The House is a collaborative effort with each story segment credited to its specific directors.
Stylistically The House shares DNA with Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr Fox in that there is a very tactile presentation. Whether human or animal, each character is made from a variety of furs or felts that you could almost reach out and stroke.
Not that such a thing would be advisable. The lingered shots and off-kilter dialogue quickly put you on edge. Section 1, And heard within, a lie is spun, set around the early 1900s, features a hard-up family given an offer too good to be true. Leave your home to live in a house designed by a reclusive and eccentric architect, for free.
Yet in doing so, the mental insecurities of an emotionally crushed father and exhaustively pragmatic mother are frayed away, leaving only an increasingly scared young daughter and baby to fend for themselves.
Things are not right at The House. They aren’t right as staircases are moved without warning, stranding the family. They still are not right decades later when (in Section 2, Then lost is truth that can’t be won) a modern day property developer sinks the last of his money into strained refurbishments, only to battle a persistent and changing infestation.
Lastly, in Listen again and seek the sun, despite an apocalyptic flood outside, a destitute landlord fights a losing battle to keep the house together and attract paying tenants.
From humans, to rats, to cats, the classification of the cast changes throughout. Voice talent keeps the dialogue taut with pressure throughout (Matthew Goode, Mark Heap, Jarvis Cocker, Susan Wokoma) and each director works hard to unsettle us.
Despite frequently minimalistic facial expressions, the animators subtly convey a richer depth of emotions than any amount of big eyes and elaborate smiles and frowns.
Is The House Worth Watching?
The House errs strongly on the side of horror where things get more and more tenuous for its protagonists until it threatens to break them, with little rhyme or reason to be wrung out of the actual events.
This works best in the first part, where the setting of class poverty and oppressive Victorian architecture is only a fragile ladder rung away from unexplainable basements and unblinking stares. It’s a classic take on the genre which the ‘large head small face’ choice for its characters accentuates nicely.
The second story also has plenty to like. Our rat redeveloper, dodging calls from the bank and promising his sweetheart that they are moments away from the big sale that will rescue them all, is another classic horror character just inches away from snapping.
The tale takes a stronger shift into the bizarre with a very bug filled song and dance number. Does the shift of species help the narrative in any way? Probably not, but it is fun to watch.
Come the third story The House is repeating itself too much to squeeze much more value out, much like our doomed landlord adrift in a world where an apparent global flood is never addressed.
As a tale of obsession it works fine, but we’ve just had two of those so it suffers in comparison, despite a solid aesthetic and voice talent.
The House repeats itself a little too much to work as an anthology series. A more connective narrative could have added call-backs and building intrigue, but despite diminishing returns, it succeeds because its unique use of big budget stop motion works excellently in such a medium of malaise.
If you pick at the peeling wallpapers there may be writhing bugs scuttling behind your thin layer of respectability. It’s up to you whether you go ahead and tear a hole.
Words by Mike Record