Two days ago, I would have put "Houses" in my top three in a list of movies that ended up punching themselves in the face at the end. Part of the reason it was so disappointing was just how good the setup was, only to fail in the last act. However, interestingly, it might have redeemed itself in its sequel, which I saw last night. Unlike most sequels which follow "and here's another chapter in the same vein," it felt more like part two of a two-part movie.
Houses 1 automatically scored points for a premise that I loved: a group of five friends (one girl, four guys) drive around America in an RV, looking for more and more extreme versions of haunted houses. My original experiences with haunted houses ranged from the one at Disney World (fun but laughable) and to the kind schools put on in the gyms. Two years ago I drove to the middle-of-nowhere Maryland to attend a higher-end haunted house that took place in an old mansion from the late 1800s or early 1900s. It was insanely fun. We first had to traipse through a cornfield in the dark (naturally we ran into some people), then we were forced to pass through a trailer, which really upset the hillbillies who owned it. The house itself was a maze, each room a different theme. The actors, who might have been high school drama kids, must have had an awesome time jumping out and scaring the shit out of people, but they were also really clever in directing traffic so that you didn't run into other groups or go the wrong way. The second best part was the basement, which involved traveling through cramped, dark hallways and pushing past construction sheeting and not being sure what would be on the other side. The absolute best room was a large one that was filled with mannequins--some were wearing outfits, some not, some were just torsos or sets of standing legs. You had to walk through the room knowing, just knowing that at least one of them was going to start to move. The actors quickly picked up on the fact that one of my friends was easily scared and targeted her. (I let the guy with the chainsaw catch me because I was curious about the chainsaw , but she ran away screaming). Not only as it fun to go through, but the whole way back we talked about how fun it must have been to plan and execute.
So needless to say, I was totally sold on the first movie's premise. The friends visit several haunted houses (they call them "haunts") and through their first person camera, we see what it might be like to go through them. At the beginning they're pretty tame, run of the mill sorts of things. But then the houses get creepier and more dark. The scenes are interspersed with interviews with people who either work at or run the houses. These were clever because to this day, I'm not sure if the interviews were real or not (they looked like they had been filmed differently, as if by the local news or cut from separate documentary tape.) In the interviews, managers admit that they don't do background checks on the temporary employees who work in the houses scaring people. One guys admits that he would do anything to scare someone. Another says that some of the houses have gotten really extreme, including grabbing the attendees, fake kidnappings, simulated rape.
One of the things both movies does really well is the gender dynamic between the one female friend-- Brandy--and the others. As they do some further investigating, they find out about this really "extreme" haunt that doesn't have a stable location and you sort of have to be invited. At one (particularly good) point, they see a scare actor at a location that they recognize from a previous house in another state--had he followed them? We see film from the perspective of someone getting into their RV at night and staring at Brandy. As things get weird, Brandy is more alarmed than the other friends. At one point they are at a bar, and when she goes to the bathroom a male stranger accosts her and refuses to let her out. When she finally does get out, she keeps asking her friends "Can we please leave?" but they just don't get it. It really highlighted that she sees risk that they don't, that she is at risk in a way they are not.
When they do get to that final "extreme" haunt, this is where the movie falls apart. They get separated, bags put over their heads, and led to different locations, although it is never really clear why. They get buried alive in coffins and SPOILER that's the end of the movie. At the time when I saw this, this just didn't deliver a satisfying punch. I think this is the explanation for the movie's low reviews, which would be higher if based on the first 4/5ths of the movie. So it wasn't an elaborate haunt, but just a random murder. That makes it a lot less fun. I wanted it to go the route of The Game, but instead it was just, "Okay, now you'll die." You don't find out anything about the killers.
This is why the second movie felt more like Part 2. It opens a year later, with you finding out that there was video of the five friends when they were buried alive, and that millions of people watched the live stream of Brandy. Brandy (in a car's trunk) is driven to the middle of no where and dropped on the road with a bunch of tapes from the events that had occurred. So it was just a scare. (Why couldn't the last movie just end that way?)
The four male friends want to go back at it with the RV, because this time they are getting paid to make appearances and promote the houses on social media. They really, really want Brandy to go with them, who at first refuses. They go to a couple haunts and it becomes apparent that these places really want Brandy to be there, because she is "Coffin Girl." Then they really start strong arming her into coming. The movie exploits some of the subtext from the other movie in a clever way--they gaslight her. She says she doesn't want to go. They say, come on, it'll be fun. She says she was buried alive, and no it would not be fun. They said they'll only be going to tame places (which they are lying about). She says she doesn't care. She says she was buried alive and this was traumatic. They say they were too, and it was just a joke and it wasn't real. She says people handle things differently. They dismiss what she's saying and make her feel bad, saying the one of the guys really needs money. (get a job or sell the RV bitch!) She relents.
The movie then spends too much time with them at some of the more tame haunts, but then finally gets to the key ending scenes. The friends are clearly trying to go to another extreme haunt, without telling Brandy that it is extreme. They are gassed in the night and driven to another state where the haunt is, and wake up confused. (Rather than driving the hell out of Dodge because this is a total violation of personal sovereignty, they decide to stay. This requires some suspension of disbelief, particularly for Brandy. But horror movies rely on extremes in suspension of disbelief.)
They enter the haunt, which looks like an abandoned factory or industrial plant of some sort. They are separated inside, and Brandy then sees the four other male friends being tortured and murdered in terrible ways. At this point she is convinced this is not a haunt, but a bunch of homicidal crazies hunting her. She runs away outside, but gets cornered by several men in skull masks who present her with a tiny coffin. She opens it--it's a gun. She points at it the men who quickly pull of their masks, shouting in panic, and reveal that it's her four friends. She's stunned-- they can't calm her down, she puts the gun in her own mouth and pulls the trigger.
The story rewinds a bit and we find out that the scare actors directed Brandy to a room to inform her that her asshole "friends" had actually planned this whole thing for money (and presumably fame.) They had never been killed and there was supposed to be a check inside the little coffin for her. The actors replaced it with a gun (presumably not shooting real bullets) and a blood packet. Brandy then gets up from her fake death and confronts her awful, awful friends. (Turns out these actor people are Blue Skeleton--the coffin people from the first movie, and were filming the whole thing, and this too goes viral.) I liked the trickster element to this movie--that the Blue Skeleton people weren't exactly good or bad, and the movie played out some of the gender dynamics from the original film. There's too many horror movies these days that depend almost solely on jump scares or graphic violence--neither of which are the intelligent type of scary. There's only been a couple horror movies in the past ten years that I thought were genuinely original these two stood out to me.