Death House, 2018.
Directed by B. Harrison Smith.
Starring Tony Moran, Adrienne Barbeau, Kane Hodder, Sid Haig, Dee Wallace, Bill Moseley, Barbara Crampton, Tony Todd, Michael Berryman, Felissa Rose, Lindsay Hartley, Sean Whalen, Vernon Wells, Debbie Rochon, Cortney Palm, Lloyd Kaufman, R.A. Mihailoff, Bill Oberst Jr., Cody Longo, and Vincent M. Ward.
During an exclusive tour, a power breakdown inside a secret prison known as the Death House sends two agents fighting through a labyrinth of horrors while being pursued by a ruthless army of roaming inmates.
Death House’s how-is-this-not-copyright-infringement market stance as “The Expendables of horror” does, admittedly, rustle anticipatory feathers. Kane Hodder. Barbara Crampton. Michael Berryman. IMdB’s credited cast could adorn double-digit Mount Gushmores – but that’s all pre-screening hype. These titans of terror claim responsibility for countless moviegoer nightmares, only to be failed as Death House fumbles its Dante’s Inferno descent while borderline inexcusable effects refuse to support such a behemoth scripted undertaking.
In theory? Death House sounds like a smash success built on honor, prestige, and legacy. In practice? It’s like scrolling through a video game character select screen only to find out you’re done playing.
Here’s the premise: agents Toria Boon (Courtney Palm) and Jae Novak (Cody Longo) are granted a “virtual” tour of “Death House” – this 9-level supermax prison that houses America’s worst of the worst. Cannibals, child killers, and Nazis, oh my! While perusing mere darkness mortals can only dream of encountering, a power outage releases every prisoner from his or her cell. Monsters like Sieg (Kane Hodder) take control, forcing Boon and Novak into the prison’s underbelly reaches to find a way out. You know, where Death House stashes five inmates who would make Satan look like a pigtailed Girl Scout.
Death House delivers on its promise of overstuffing scenes with Horror Hall Of Fame first-balloters, but does so disappointingly little else. There’s Tony Todd as a farmer…who patrols the outdoor barriers of Death House? Hey, that’s Bill Moseley as…some guy in a General Zod suit who’s preaching about God being a fraud? Is that Debbie Rochon as a gender-swapped Texas Chain Saw riff named – oh boy – ”Leatherlace?” This cast doesn’t quit – R.A. Mihailoff, Vernon Wells, Sid Haig, Adrienne Barbeau – unlike material that gives up on existing as anything more than a star-studded roll call.
In The Expendables, Sylvester Stallone ensures his all-star participants kick the door down when their time comes. Remember when Chuck Norris struts into focus after massacring around 50 soldiers? Death House creator B. Harrison Smith jam-packs his film with more autograph-worthy names than twenty horror conventions slammed together, but at what cost? No development. Cameo points only. Kane Hodder, Dee Wallace as “tour guide” Dr. Eileen Fletcher, and Barbara Crampton as Dr. Karen Redmane hold the meatiest roles next to Courtney Palm and Cody Longo’s focal agents, but don’t expect more than blink-and-you’ll-miss appearances.
Alas, Death House is a convoluted puzzle of “excising moral cancers,” Holocaust conspiracies, suggestions that God is a sadist – all in a virtual reality world. Boon and Novak “jack-in” when coming face to face with maximum security madmen, which gets all wacky when trying to figure out reality versus what’s being monitored by scientists. The late Gunnar Hansen notches original story credit here with Smith’s name alongside, but whether they collaborate or Smith adapted Hansen’s idea, robust concepts devour themselves and talk in macabre philosophical circles. Homeless being harvested for prison victims, a room full of inside-out humans, magic lightning bolts, the list goes on.
It doesn’t help that Death House presumably exhausts every last budgeted dime on securing actors over special effects. Take your pick of examples. Hodder’s melty-faced encounter burns an ugly incendiary brightness. When a far-off figure scampers in-and-out of sight, we glimpse PlayStation Classic graphics. Boon and Novak – during the film’s most ludicrous sequence – have no choice but to slide down elevator cables while shooting escaped prisoners in the process and WOW. Plummeting downwards, their gripping hands inexplicably uninjured, shaft walls speeding by, random blurs gun-popped while 00s industrial metal blares. Sans one gruesome altercation between Hodder and Mihailoff, what a blunder of wasted horror potential.
As someone who worships at the altar of – well – take your pick here, it brings me no satisfaction to deem Death House a monumental mess. Why do we need an exposition dump while Boon and Longo shower (leery camera ogling included)? How can so many psychopaths make for such dull lockdown paranoia? Did anyone think about through lines here? There’s a reason marketing materials lean so heavily into selling “The Expendables of horror,” and that’s because – devastatingly – it’s hard to promote a collection of horror’s most prominent names cycled on-screen as an undefined gallery of rogues. Fun for a brief few minutes as 1,001 maniacs like Balthoria, Crau, and Thile are introduced, abandoned by the remaining 90-ish minutes that do absolutely nothing with each icon.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Matt spends his after-work hours posting nonsense on the internet instead of sleeping like a normal human. He seems like a pretty cool guy, but don’t feed him after midnight just to be safe (beers are allowed/encouraged). Follow him on Twitter/Instagram (@DoNatoBomb).