Review Date: October 14, 2010
Released by: Sinister Cinema
Release date: ?
Region 0, NTSC
Yours truly has made several attempts at the art form known as the short film, and each one of those attempts has been progressively better, if still flawed by technical and narrative difficulties. The two short films of mine that were the most difficult – Deadly Dream
in 2004 and The Basement
in 2008 – were also the ones that I was reminded of the most while watching this film, an impossibly low budgeted indie which must have had a theatrical release by virtue of it existing in 35mm print form. The former of the two shorts reminded me of House of Dreams
because it dealt with dreams and the metaphysical. The latter reminded me of it because it existed simply to exploit a very eerie location that we had access to. And this film reminded me of both especially because its director, Robert Berry, is also a jack of all trades who shot, wrote, edited and acted in the film, all hats that I had to wear at varying points on one or both of my shorts. The result of doing so many things at once tends to diffuse your creative energy, and I found out the hard way that it’s no way to shoot a movie, a lesson that Berry probably learned as well after putting this messy, crude but fascinating little movie together.
Lee Hansen (Robert Berry
) is a writer of horror stories. Living in a small town with his wife Helene (Pauline Elliott
), the couple shares a life that seems outwardly pleasant, but which is marred by career and marital difficulties. Ever since they’ve been married Lee’s writing career has stagnated. He works constantly yet produces almost nothing for his efforts, and he hasn’t published anything in years. Lee is tormented by constant headaches and frequent nightmares, all of which center around the old Winninger house, an abandoned, decaying mansion on the outskirts of town that is said to be haunted. In his dreams Lee visits the house, walking through its rotting corridors in search of something he can’t understand. Helene is concerned by her husband’s anguish and incredibly fearful about the future of their relationship. Lee is not the same man that she married.
During one of his typical dream walks through the Winninger house, Lee sees his lifelong friend Ted walk by at the bottom of a staircase and then disappear. Searching the grounds, Lee discovers Ted’s lifeless body floating face down at the bottom of a well. And then he awakes, where Helene tells him he has a phone call. The person on the other end is a police officer friend of his who tells him that Ted has died. He was driving and had some sort of seizure, which caused him to flip his car over into a stream where he drowned. Lee is shocked; although he never says it out loud or tells anyone about the dream, he draws a definite connection between seeing Ted drowned in the well and learning that he drowned in real life. As a result of Ted’s death, and because of his continuing inability to get any substantial writing done, Lee withdraws even further, much to Helene’s dismay.
Helene worries that he doesn’t love her any longer. Worse, she is a recovered alcoholic who had to spend time in a sanitarium in order to sober up. Ever since she’s been out she’s believed Lee has treated her differently. She’s been keeping a bottle of liquor in her room as a challenge to herself to not touch it again. Now she begins to struggle with ever stronger urges to drink in order to escape her marital problems. Meanwhile, Lee has another dream about the Winninger place, in which he finds Helene hanging from a noose, dead. Shocked by the dream, he drives out to the old house upon waking, as if mysteriously drawn there. Returning to his own house later that day he finds it swarming with police. Helene lost her battle against the urge to drink again, and felt so guilty at having relapsed that she hung herself in a closet. Overcome with grief, Lee slips in a despairing, drunken stupor. Falling asleep again, he is confronted by yet another dream of the Winninger house – a dream of his own death!
Watching House of Dreams
, it is impossible to not make a mental comparison between it and Herk Harvey's Carnival of Souls
, released a year earlier. Both films were regional productions made by men who were outside the Hollywood studio system. Both films deal with the psychological and supernatural torment of their protagonists. Both films center their action around an eerie, abandoned location whose desolation and desertion serve as a mysterious attraction for their main characters. And both films have a strange dreamlike quality to them that stays with people long afterwards. But while Herk Harvey's film has become a cult classic with plenty of recognition from mainstream critics, Robert Berry's House of Dreams
remains incredibly obscure, and in truth that obscurity is well deserved. While the movie certainly has a unique atmosphere, it falls well below average in almost every area of cinematic pursuit, whether it be acting, writing, editing or even the most basic concepts of cinematography.
The essence of Robert Berry's film is summed up by a single shot in the last third of the movie, where Lee, working feverishly on his novel, looks up to see Helene come into his office. Without speaking she leans in and kisses him, then beckons for him to come to bed with the apparent desire to engage in some marital intimacy. Holding the sheet of paper he was working on, Lee simply shakes his head and refuses, and she leaves. Filmed in a single take from a painfully static ninety-degree angle, the scene perfectly communicates the story between these two people in a cinematic manner that is consistent with Berry's oeuvre, a style in which dialogue is limited and editing is crude or nonexistent. As an aspiring filmmaker I can only dream of being able to sum up a story and technique in a single take, but Berry did it with this one moment.
Perhaps the charm of House of Dreams
comes from the sparse simplicity of the whole thing. If the Internet Movie Database is to be believed, the entire film was shot in the town of Decker, Indiana, a place which, according to its Wikipedia page, had fewer than three hundred people in it at the time of the 2000 census (the town is apparently too small for it to even have its own website). A place that sounds so ordinary and unexceptional that for it to have had any feature film whatsoever produced in it borders on the unbelievable. Yet, if the film was indeed shot there, that very ordinariness adds to its appeal. The slick, glossy look of even low budget Hollywood productions is absent here. The house that Lee and Helene live in – probably Berry’s actual house – is a simple, one story prefabricated design of the type that was common after World War II. Other than Lee’s office none of the interiors of that house show any particular artistic or design flair. Lee and Helene sleep in a queen sized bed together, something which was perfectly normal for couples in 1963, in spite of TV shows that still insisted on showing husbands and wives in separate beds.
Ostensibly the only unique location is the Winninger house where Lee’s tormented dreams take him, and even this has a believable reality to it, inside and out. The outside of the house looks like any sinister abandoned old house that can be found in almost any town, perhaps a little creepier than the norm but not exceptional. The sight of the structure from the outside does not evoke the idea that horrible things must have taken place inside of it. But it does evoke memories of that house you and your friends were scared to walk past as kids. The interior of the house – I assume that Berry and his crew actually went inside the real thing – looks beautifully worn and real, as if they simply filmed the place as is, without doing anything to modify its appearance. I don’t think any modifications were necessary.
Nominally supernatural, House of Dreams
is really a drama about the decay of marriage and the emptiness of the American dream for two lonely people, all packaged and sold as a horror film. The Helene character speaks with an English accent. Little is revealed about how she met Lee or what the early days of their relationship were like, but it becomes tragically clear that this could not have been the life that she imagined for herself when she came to America. She flails about for help, hoping beyond hope that her blockheaded husband might actually realize the emotional distress that she is in. Lee never seems to leave the house, thus eliminating doubts about whether or not he might be having an affair, but the close proximity to each other becomes a great void. They might as well be sleeping in separate beds for all the intimacy that they have. Lee’s obsession with the Winninger house seems almost a mirror reflection of his unwillingness to stray from his. The title carries a weight of irony to it. The real house of dreams is not the decaying old mansion that Lee obsesses over, but rather his own house, where the dreams are all broken ones.
Technically crude in ways that are both charming and infuriating, one particular aspect of the movie which never fails to raise eyebrows is the often bizarre framing of many shots, particularly close-ups which have an odd tendency to...well, cut off the bottoms of people’s faces. I’ve never seen a movie that does this. Nobody frames shots like that, not even amateur cameramen. Most of the misframed shots are close-ups of Berry (a few are of Pauline Elliott), and most are scenes that take place at the couple’s kitchen table. Below are some examples:
How could anybody not see that this framing was terrible? One online review I read wondered whether the cameraman was blind. My personal theory – only a theory, mind you – comes from my experience shooting short films with little or no crew, and of experiences that I have had where I have put myself on camera as an actor without anybody behind the camera to monitor the action, with similar results to what Berry has on display here. Now, I was shooting on video and was able to frame my shots with the help of the pull-out LCD and was always able to rewind to see if the shot came out fine or whether I needed to redo it. Had I been shooting on film I wouldn’t have had those luxuries, and it is my theory that these shots in House of Dreams
look the way they do because there was nobody actually behind the camera when they were being filmed. It’s obvious that Berry was short on crewmembers for the film, but he lists three camera operators in the opening credits, himself among them. My assumption is that the other two cameramen were not available on the day when these scenes were filmed and Berry had to frame them himself and start the camera running, then act. Although Berry should have been able to frame Pauline Elliott’s shots more easily, he probably wasn’t behind the camera for those either, but was rather sitting next to her to deliver his dialogue and maintain her eye line.
These little quirks make the film all the more interesting for me, and one has to hand it to Robert Berry; he finished making a movie. Few people even attempt such a project, and even fewer actually complete it. It will never be mistaken for a professional movie, but it’s still an accomplishment. It provides an earnest glimpse of places that no one remembers in a town that nobody has ever heard of, and shows the efforts of a man who seems to have been truly driven to tell a story, no matter the difficulties and obstacles. And he succeeded in creating a film that is hard for the viewer to forget, if not quite for the reasons that he probably intended.
If you watch DVDs from public domain companies like Alpha Video, then you know what to expect here. If you can tolerate watching that kind of quality, then more power to you, because you’ll be dealing with it on this release.
House of Dreams
is given a full-frame 1.33:1 presentation, burned on DVD-R media. This interlaced transfer is well below the standards of a remastered mass market release, but is tolerable all the same. Sinister Cinema’s catalog lists this title as having been taken from a 35mm print, though it would certainly appear that a 3/4" tape master or some other similar medium was used as an intermediary. The image is overly contrasty, with a washed-out picture that is soft and lacking in fine detail. Scratches, splices, blemishes and vertical lines are a constant presence and litter practically every frame.
In addition to this, there’s also a very odd defect that I noticed sixteen minutes into the film, and that is a greenish-white horizontal line stretched across the lower right hand corner of the image. This is presumably some sort of digital glitch. It is highly distracting, and lasts approximately three minutes.
The audio is presented in Dolby 2.0 Mono and, like the image, the quality is tolerable but no more. Dialogue alternates between sounding muffled and overly shrill, sometimes in the same scene and a thin layer of background noise permeates most of the film.
The only extra is a theatrical trailer for a 1959 horror film called The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake
I hesitate in the kind of recommendation that I want to give to House of Dreams
. On the one hand, the movie is crudely made and makes little sense. On the other hand, it has a genuine, if bizarre, power to fascinate and engage. Robert Berry’s opus may be pretentious, but it’s not cynical and condescending towards the viewer in the way that makes many bad movies unwatchable. It is a genuinely sincere effort. Sinister Cinema’s DVD-R is not of very good quality, but as far as I know it’s the only way to view the film at present, and those interested should head on over to their website
and check it out.
Movie – C-
Image Quality – D+
Sound – D+
Supplements – C
- Running Time – 1 hour 9 minutes
- Not rated
- 1 Disc
- Chapter Stops
- English 2.0 Mono
- Trailer for The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake