Yep… I know you’ve noticed… I’ve been terribly terribly absent again, but finally I’m back here at the ol’ Litterbox and it’s time for your Favorite Catgirl Princess to take a wee side trip to exotic Vietnam for our next creepy movie review, with a look at the recent Region 1 DVD release for Vietnamese writer-director Lê Văn Kiệt’s 2012 ghost story “Ngôi Nhà Trong Hẻm” aka “House In The Alley”.
Our synopsis goes like this: “House in the Alley follows Thanh and Thao, a young successful couple living in Saigon about to begin a new happy chapter in their lives, parenthood. However, that dream becomes a nightmare, with the violent death of their son. Thanh begins to see a drastic change in Thao, and becomes concerned. She is withdrawn, compulsive, and prone to hallucination. But he can only do his best, also handling a major crisis with his business. Their house itself changes. Scratches appear on walls, furniture is vandalized, something is haunting them. Wracked with guilt and isolated, Thao is convinced their son is cursing them from the grave. Thao becomes almost unrecognizable as the paranormal takes over her body. Tormented by the thought of losing his wife, Thanh searches for clues to the history behind their house past, uncovering a secret many hoped to forget.”
Sounds pretty much like the kind of film yours truly likes… with creepy ghosts, paranormally induced insanity… and more than a wee bit of supernatural “conflict resolution” with all sorts of sharp and pointy tools. 😉 Ought to be oodles of fun, or as my sweet wifey always says “Oh no… not another of your crazy foreign psycho ghost movies….”. Why, yes, my dearest Carolyn… it’s looks like exactly that. Yes, yes…. I know…. I’m sooooo gonna owe her a big loving kiss, some quality cuddle time, and a Romantic comedy movie choice for our next Movie Nite. 🙂
However… as most of my Gentle Visitors here at the ol’ Litterbox seem to share this wee lady’s taste in atrocious horror movies, I expect all of you will probably want to “Read On” and find out just what might be in store for you if this DVD is on your own particular “must see” list so let’s give it a try shall we?
So. A Vietnamese ghost story? Really? In my feverishly fanatic collecting of Asian horror cinema over the years I honestly haven’t managed to see all that many Vietnamese movies…. mostly just a few martial arts swordplay epics and one or two modern cops n’ robbers efforts and never a real Vietnamese horror film. (I really don’t count 2005’s “Oan Hồn” aka “Spirits” which I reviewed waaaaay back then, as it was actually made here in the US rather than in Vietnam itself… ) Not that Vietnam doesn’t make horror movies…. they most certainly do, however I’ve just never had all that much luck running into any of them. I’m told that DVD’s in Vietnam itself are quite unlike those I’m used to from other Asian locales too. For one thing…. they seem to come on 2 discs like the old VCD format. Why? Darned if I know. Maybe they don’t want to pay licensing for the format… sorta like Disney. Me? I’ve never managed to even ever find one directly from Vietnam itself. Anyways… when I first got news of this one, I figured it too would remain elusive much like the others I’d heard of. Luckily for me, director Lê Văn Kiệt managed to get some fairly good Western press on “Ngôi Nhà Trong Hẻm” when it came out back in 2012 and even though it took two whole years to happen, eventually it was picked up for distribution on a decent Region 1 DVD release from Shout! Factory. Not to mention… also with nice accurate English subtitles along for the ride… Yay!! 😉
It’s a pretty slick looking film too, rather than the quaint shoestring budgeted effort I’d expected to experience. Kudos to director Lê Văn Kiệt for hiring Joel Spezeski as cinematographer on this one giving the film a much more polished overall look than most other local productions mange to achieve. I can tell you, the result was a bigger hit with Carolyn than some of my… ummmm… shall we say, “less ambitious”… Asian films often are. The story? Well, that’s a simple one too, and therefore oodles easier to digest for my sweetheart than many from that part of the world can be at times.
We start off with a particularly gruesome miscarriage that happens to our heroine Thao (played by Thanh Van Ngo aka Veronica Ngo). It’s one of those home births… with a midwife attending who arrives during a typhoon and takes one look at Thao and knows this particular birth is soooo gonna crash and burn like the Hindenburg. Yep. No amount of towels and hot water will stop this from ending so badly.
Well… one stillborn baby later and poor Thao has that sort of mental breakdown that leaves her hubby Thanh (played by Son Bao Tran) with no way to console her other than to give in to her obsessive need to keep the baby hanging around in his tiny lil’ coffin here at home rather than seeing to any sort of proper funerary rite. Yep, our hero’s got problems. He loves his achingly pretty but mentally shattered wife even if he has to shield her from his no-nonsense mother (played by Tran Bich) who thinks she just ought to suck it up and get over things. His mother. She’s… well… there’s really no nice way to put it. She’s a bitch. A real Queen Bitch of the First Order. Bad news is, she’s also Thanh’s boss at work and browbeats him endlessly about just plain slapping some sense into Thao, and then manning up to handle the labor problems that are threatening to torpedo the family business but good. She’s never liked Thao, and this tragedy just reinforces her idea that Thanh’s marriage was a stupid mistake on his part anyway.
Sound depressing enough? Oh yeah. But don’t worry… things are going to get sooo darn much worse.
Basically, our story then starts going to some pretty scary places as Thao starts experiencing hallucinations and exhibiting all those crazy postpartum depression symptoms you’d expect to see on a Lifetime network movie-of-the-week melodrama… but with ghosts.
The house. It’s a really roomy and somewhat upscale place for a young couple to afford. Mind you… it’s a wee bit rundown, a bit of a fixer-upper, and there’s a reason why. Seems along with the unburied baby-in-a-box that our young couple keeps in their bedroom, the house was once also the scene of a tragic fire that killed a bunch of children who now apparently haunt the house and seek to maliciously mess with anyone daring to live there. Poor Thanh ends up juggling a lot of stuff by mid-film. His domineering mother… his wife, descending into grief fueled homicidal madness… and both the ghosts of his unborn son and some evil urchins trying to kill them both. Cue the standard ghostly giggling just out of frame… the weird noises on the roof at night… the scampering little figures just out of the corner of your eye.
None of this is particularly novel or new. Trust me, this wee Catgirl’s seen plenty of similar stories. Even so, although there’s precious few surprises on hand, the whole thing moves along reasonably well, building suspense as we wait for poor Thao’s cheese to completely fall off her cracker. You just know. That’s when things will get frisky.
Naturally our film pushes things to that nasty place where loving wife starts hunting down loving hubby with a big honking axe and you just know somebody’s gonna lose a body part before it all gets resolved for good or ill. I mean… hey… it worked in “The Shining”…. 😉
So what’s the verdict? Well, “Ngôi Nhà Trong Hẻm” doesn’t score for originality story wise, but I’d have to say it does at least understand what it’s trying to do and makes an honest effort to get there in a way that takes that rather overused story and works it for what it’s worth. However… when you consider where this one was made… it’s a pretty darn good effort from a rather unexpected film industry. The acting is pretty good, if uninspired and I found both leads very convincing within the confines of the tale at hand. The ghostly action was well done… but in a way, felt almost unnecessary. Without it, the story probably would have worked as a simple psychological thriller about postpartum depression driving our heroine to murder and mayhem. In fact, given how poorly the angle about the haunting was handled, I almost would have preferred that it play out that way. To me anyway, the ghosts seemed kind of “tacked on” to appeal to ghost story fans rather than being a necessary part of the story. Maybe there was something subtle and cultural to it all, but I’d have to say this wee Catgirl missed it….
I give it all a respectable 3 “Meows” out of 5, again mostly for being a very professional looking film from a place I don’t expect to see such fare from. It’s worth a look, most definitely if Asian horror is your thing, but just don’t expect too much more from it than this and you’ll be fine. The Region 1 DVD by Shout! Factory is excellent with good subtitles, a widescreen letterbox format… and it’s certainly budget conscious too, available from most places for right around 10-15$ US. Heck, it’s even available at your local Walmart…. 😉
There’s a nifty Trailer available… with oodles and oodles of creepy ghost action for those still on the fence about giving it a look. Give it a peek, why don’t you?