Local-boy-made-good Darren Lynn Bousman, who hails from Overland Park, broke into the horror scene by directing a handful of the earliest sequels in the Saw franchise, before branching out into more unpredictable fare like Repo! The Genetic Opera, the 2010 remake of Mother’s Day, and his passion project The Devil’s Carnival, to name a few. Now he’s back in the director’s seat with Abattoir, a movie with a logline so batshit/great that the film itself is pretty much bound to be a disappointment by comparison.
I’d try to be more coy about that premise, but the trailer pretty much gives it away, as do some of the promotional images for the film. Basically, the story centers around a guy who is building the ultimate haunted house—by assembling it piecemeal out of rooms where murders and other tragic deaths have occurred. We’re introduced to the concept as a young real estate reporter (Jessica Lowndes, who previously worked with Bousman in The Devil’s Carnival) is investigating the death of her sister’s family, and the subsequent disappearance of the room where the murder took place.
This is just the first in the film’s long series of exposition and build-up. In fact, while the trailer may try to paint Abattoir as something in the same vein as recent successful spookshows like Insidious or The Conjuring, for most of its running time it is actually more like a spooky detective story, complete with plenty of film noir touches and 1940s aesthetics, in spite of obviously taking place in the modern day. (While there are no shortage of cell phones, you never so much as see a computer monitor, and only one TV of the old-fashioned tube variety.)
It’s certainly not the first time that Bousman has mixed-and-matched period details in his pictures, and at times Abattoir feels like a film that wanted to be a period piece but didn’t quite have the budget; albeit rarely, if ever, to its detriment. In fact, if Abattoir suffers, it’s from the fact that its action can never compete with its idea, which it spends most of its running time setting up. (Also Lowndes, who certainly looks the part of the 40s reporter heroine, can’t quite anchor the emotional beats that her character needs, and finds herself upstaged by the film’s supporting cast at most turns.)
That supporting cast is about what you would expect. Lin Shaye shows up, doing what Lin Shaye typically does in modern horror movies, and doing it well, as always. (“You scared me,” Lowndes’ character says when she first appears. “I have that effect on people,” Shaye replies.) Dayton Callie, another Bousman alum, channels his best Tom Waits as the film’s ostensible villain Jebediah Crone, who gets to deliver most of the best lines, and even nod to Dracula as he bids our heroine, “Enter my house, of your own free will.” (The mayor from the Scream TV series is also around, however briefly, as Lowndes’ editor.)
It takes the film a third of its total running time to get to the creepy town of New English, which we only ever really see as a Silent Hill-esque maze of half-abandoned industrial buildings. It’s another thirty minutes or more before we get to the amalgamated haunted house from which the movie takes its title; though once we do it’s a suitably impressive edifice, populated, room-for-room, by specters that appear as smoky shadows. It’s certainly a different approach to ghostly special effects, but unfortunately the unquiet spirits are often so incorporeal as to appear indecipherable.
As might be expected from a horror movie that chooses to open with a Henry David Thoreau quote, Abattoir often seems more interested in getting its ideas out there than it is in spinning out its story, and definitely more than in actually spooking you. As such, you won’t find many of the jump scares that we’ve all come to expect from modern ghost movies, replaced instead with a gradually closing circle of sinister townspeople and old secrets, with lots of pauses for nicely ominous exposition. (“Orphans without a god will open their door to whoever might knock.”)
With so much emphasis on the horrors of real estate, Abattoir could easily feel like a screenplay that was written during the housing crisis, but instead its themes sometimes seem peculiarly topical to this present political moment, even while the picture itself feels inextricably bound to the aesthetics and patois of 1940s film noir. When Lin Shaye’s character says of the residents of the dying industrial town, “It’s unspeakable what a person will do not to feel powerless,” it’s hard not to look around the world right now and hear a grim echo.
By the time the credits roll, the film has touched on places that feel reminiscent of Victor Salva’s 2014 film Dark House and the 1999 remake of House on Haunted Hill—though better than the former and never quite as bonkers as either—but for the most part it remains its own thing throughout. The opening credits say that the film was inspired by a comic book of the same name, and the whole exercise feels like it might have proven more successful in that medium, but even if Abattoir never quite lives up to the promise of its premise—or some of the better horror films that have populated multiplexes in 2016—it’s difficult to fault a movie so committed to its own audacious central idea.