Horror presents its own joys and its particular sorrows. Any genre fan can name them: gore over story, shallow characterization, and predictability. A parody of horror movies like the Scary Movie franchise or a loving send-up like Scream wouldn’t be complete without lampooning these less-than-desirable traits. When I sat down to watch Havenhurst, I was expecting another bland “haunted house” story. What I got was something pleasantly different.
Havenhurst gets off to a quick start with a grim gore scene, and immediately after, we’re introduced to Jackie (Julie Benz), who is being released from a rehabilitation center into the world’s most lavish half-way house. Called Havenhurst, the building is a towering luxury highrise ruled by icy Eleanor (Fionnula Flannagan) and her creepy janitor son. Eleanor explains that Jackie is welcome at Havenhurst as long as she keeps clean, and Jackie readily agrees. Upon moving in, Jackie has several disturbing encounters: being placed in her vanished friend’s former apartment, overhearing an argument between Eleanor and disgraced tenant Paula (Jennifer Blanc-Biehn), and meeting a shy little girl named Sarah (Belle Shouse) whom Jackie suspects is being abused. As she’s haunted with increasingly detailed flashbacks about her absent daughter, Jackie becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to her friend while struggling to care for Sarah after her foster mother and her pedophile boyfriend (Toby Huss) also disappear. While Jackie’s problems mount, her desire to drink grows, until the inevitable happens…
The biggest weakness in Havenhurst is tone. Rising grandly above the city skyline, the Havenhurst building reminds the viewer of the covetable apartment in Rosemary’s Baby. A nice visual nod, but frequent cuts to its sun-drenched, gorgeous exterior interrupts the film’s mood of studied despair. Jackie’s caught in a Repulsion-esque downward spiral, newly saddled with motherhood after a tragedy, but with the haphazard intrusion of sunny days, pleasantly bustling streets, restaurants, and stores, plus a superfluous police station that only drags down the drama of what’s happening inside Havenhurst, it becomes difficult to connect the terror of the scare scenes with the rest of the film. The eternally optimistic lighting doesn’t help matters, either. When Jackie gets a job at a diner, her co-worker rasps, “Welcome to Hell,” but the place looks like Purgatory at worst, with all that golden light and gauzy ambiance.
Havenhurst is at its best when it allows the characters time and space to interact inside the walls of the eponymous building. There are some legitimately good scares here, most of which center around Havenhurst’s unpredictable architecture. Trap doors, hidden panels, and child-sized tunnels all add to the air of dread that is cultivated in fits and bursts throughout the film. A tense encounter between Sarah and her guardian’s boyfriend culminates in a grandly flamboyant gore scene, and the threat lurking behind Havenhurst’s walls is a truly scary presence the filmmakers are smart enough not to overuse.
The cast of Havenhurst also goes a long way toward making up for the occasional errors in tone. Horror icon Danielle Harris makes a memorable appearance, as does Jennifer Blanc-Biehn in one of the film’s most stomach-churning sequences. Julie Benz brings real vulnerability and unexpected strength to Jackie, but the script gives her too few moments to shine. Her scenes with Belle Shouse’s Sarah are genuinely bittersweet, and the audience is left wishing for more of that human connection between bright skies and masterful gore sequences. Fionnula Flanagan is regal as Havenhurst’s matriarch Eleanor, but like Jackie and Sarah’s fledgling mother/daughter relationship, the viewer is left wanting to know more. She’s a great villainess, but we’re not given enough to set her alongside the likes of Jigsaw, the established horror-movie-heel she most resembles. Then again, it took that franchise a while to give Jigsaw more than the simplest of motivations.
See Havenhurst for the great performances, it’s unique premise, and gutsy gore scenes. There’s enough here, that I actually hope there will be a sequel. In a world of paint-by-the-numbers direct to DVD horror movies, I’d say that’s not half bad.