Review by Alexander Garrett
Can you charge rent on the laughter of children? Pay interest on a home-cooked meal?
Watching TV in the bedroom, cuddling on the couch. Stair-lifts, hide-and-seek, faded photos on the mantle, empty cans in the garden. Arguments, eviction notices, and cockroaches under the stairs, breeding in the rotting fetid darkness. Good times and bad debts. Grand designs and existential dread.
A house, a home, a sanctuary, an asset – where you grew up and where you will die.
Nexus Studios’ aptly-named animated series The House (2022), recently released on Netflix, is a three-part anthology, each episode centred around the same grand, distinctly ominous Victorian villa throughout its long ill-fated history. As the story transitions, the house itself also changes in nature, from a 19th-century country manor that inside becomes an impenetrable labyrinth of shifting walls, to a modern-day refurbished terrace, plagued by sneering buyers, economic recession, and swarms of beetles, then finally a post-apocalyptic haven stranded in a biblical tide, filled with overdue repairs and cash-poor tenants as the waters creep higher and higher.
Rendered in painstakingly-detailed stop-motion, the film’s cast of humans, anthropomorphic rats, and cats are expressive and exceptionally well-animated – with stand-out voice-acting performances from Mia Goth (Mabel), Mark Heap (Mr Thomas), and Jarvis Cocker (the Developer) – its compelling characters and otherworldly (if mildly disturbing) surrealism warranting favourable comparisons to Isle of Dogs (2017) and Coraline (2009). The rich textures and props dotted around each environment are complemented by the animators’ and effects artists’ excellent application of light and colour, from roaring fireplaces, bin bags heaving with refuse, to the morning sun shrouded in soupy mist, that makes each backdrop feel authentically immersive.
At times, the movements and lip-syncing can feel stiff and mechanical, an unnerving visual effect for some that, in this case, arguably serves the anthology well; just as their models move like puppets on strings – their limbs seemingly contorted to please an invisible master – in narrative terms, each protagonist’s desires are inexorably constrained by vast external forces beyond their control. Either way, considering the immense difficulty of the medium (as well as my personal fondness for animation), the degree of intricate artistic craftsmanship is still a feat to behold.
Beneath this appealing/unsettling visual aesthetic, all three episodes are tied together by the anthology’s central thematic question and its “historical” development – that is, what the house represents: a home to provide comfort or an asset to accumulate wealth? Personal security or commercial status? This struggle between social need and private accumulation afflicts all commodified housing systems – a contradiction that today weighs like an albatross on the necks of tenants, families, and homeowners In Ireland and around the world, shackled with soaring debts and rent while property barons and corporate vultures pick their pockets – making the series’ subject ever more pressing.
Although this may sound rather unconvincing (bear with me), in my view, The House offers an excellent example of the interplay between social alienation and psychological horror – how mundane economic processes can adopt more terrifying unearthly mythical qualities. (After all, why else would financial recessions be framed in terms of “fear”, “panic”, “anxiety”, “crisis”, “depression”?) The existential dread that plagues each protagonist’s life – inescapable dungeons, swarming insects, biblical floods – are in fact painfully real, demons that can only be exorcised once the material forces that created them have been swept away.
*SPOILER WARNING FROM THIS POINT ON – READ AT YOUR OWN PERIL*
In this vein, the first narrative depicts the rise of this demonic/economic spectre, as Raymond, a country gentleman fallen “beneath his station”, makes a Faustian bargain with the opulent Mr Van Schoonbeek to build him a magnificent mansion. Enthralled by luxury, he and his wife Penelope are (literally) possessed by primal hedonism to indulge in mindless ritualistic labour, as Van Schoonbeek constantly rebuilds the house – a gruelling incoherent farce of over-production that drives his steward Mr Thomas to a mental breakdown. Neglected and naïve to this disorienting consumerist madness, Mabel and her (surprisingly durable) infant sister Isobel are forced to fend for themselves, eventually finding their parents horrifically transformed into furniture, destroyed by their own rapacious consumption, as the fireplace spills over and engulfs the house – the apocalyptic climax of wealth accumulation.
Essentially re-iterating this financial phantom’s tale in a modern setting, the second story involves a rat-developer breaking his back renovating Raymond’s former house, haggling with both creditors and his lover over the phone. Radio broadcasts describe a catastrophic recession, reflected in the house’s threadbare furnishings riddled with beetles and the developer’s own exhausted condition. Replicating Mr Thomas’s servility, he debases himself to satisfy derisive upper-class clients, eventually cracking after a grotesque couple begin to occupy the property (without buying it), treating him like a servant. Finally, driven to primal insanity, he succumbs to pure animalistic greed, as the couple’s extended family ravage the house in a disgusting orgy of mindless consumption. Ultimately, the house’s all-consuming beetle infestation proves rather ironic, since the rats have been vermin “infesting” the property all along – consumption, investment, and destruction merely consecutive steps in the same irrational catabolic cycle.
Finally, in the third’s episode’s slightly contrived allegory for climate change/collapse, the all-consuming curse barely clings to life, as exasperated cat-landlady Rosa struggles to manage the house amid a post-apocalyptic flood where money, production, and property rights have lost all practical meaning. Though all her other tenants have left, she still initially treats Elias and Jen as uneconomical burdens, paying rent in fish and crystals since they understandably have no alternative income. In denial over society’s collapse, Rosa clings to obsolete conventions of market-value and private-ownership even as water pools around their ankles (invoking hints of Ben Shapiro: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0-w-pdqwiBw), rejecting the communal mysticism of wandering hippie Cosmos. Initially promising to help “renovate” the property, the transient instead cannibalises some floorboards for Elias’ boat and transforms the house itself into a colossal sea-faring vessel, sacrificing Rosa’s ground-rent for their collective well-being. After a tumultuous internal struggle against her deep-seated fears and economic instincts, eventually Rosa decides to set sail, exorcising the house’s demons and ending the domestic nightmare on a hopeful note of liberation and adventure.
Ultimately, while I did thoroughly enjoy The House, relishing the degree of animated craftsmanship and thematically-engaging storytelling, nevertheless the film feels intangibly incomplete in some aspects. Given the sheer variety of genres in just a 90-minute run-time, the stories here can feel rather spread-thin, leaving the audience wanting more – or at least greater specialisation – more in-depth character development, greater thematic complexity, or more unsettling skin-crawling horror. Overall, despite the second episode’s repetitive insights and the third’s underdeveloped narrative, The House is still a work to behold, offering a heartening blends of emotional drama, enthralling aesthetics, and mild nightmare fuel – a combination that once made Coraline so compelling for a generation of young traumatised minds.