'Our House' Is An Ambitious, Spooky And All-Too-Generic Ghost Story [Fantasia Film Festival]

Anthony Scott Burns' Our House is a surprisingly conventional departure from his ultra-haunting Holidays segment "Father's Day." As a ghost story? It's still plenty successful at weighing the heft of post-tragedy grief. But as Burns' follow-up to a short that builds mystifying dread with a fraction of the production capabilities? This remake of Matt Osterman's 2010 Ghost from the Machine is vastly more linear than one might assume.

Maybe that's because Burns didn't write his own screenplay (credit Nathan Parker). Maybe it's feature-length debut pressures (doubt it). Don't read this as "Anthony Scott Burns punts his first directorial opportunity." One just has to ponder how a filmmaker who's proven himself creatively unshackled ends up channeling formulaic expectations (while still sticking the landing).

Thomas Mann stars as Ethan, an intelligent student of science who's chasing a breakthrough that could provide "WIFI energy" to American households. His device – a spinning triangular panel that emits electromagnetic signals – could exponentially shatter technological boundaries, which is why he leaves family dinner one night with female companion Hannah (Nicola Peltz) for final testing. His machine boots up, a free-standing light bulb starts to flicker signs of illumination, but then the power shorts out just as blackish smog begins pouring from the light bulb's coils. Then Ethan's phone rings. It's brother Matt (Percy Hynes White). There's been an accident. Ethan rushes home, and thus begins his new life of caretaking for Matt and pint-sized sister Becca (Kate Moyer).

Oh, right. The black cloud, you ask? Let's just stay Ethan's calculations didn't fully comprehend the "portals" and "dimensions" his invention could possibly open. Including a highway to the afterlife.

As a paranormal invasion story, Our House shares many similarities with James Wan and Leigh Whannell's Insidious franchise (never as enthusiastically terrorizing) – or any "little kids talk to passed souls" film, really. Multiple signs are ignored – Ethan's dry erase board reading "pathways," "portals," and "dimensions" – and no one thinks it's a bad idea to keep sending up a beacon to undead wanderers. No shadowed twists, really. No sharp turns. From genre veterans to first-time watchers, Nathan Parker doesn't care to challenge tried-and-true haunted house pacing.

While that sounds horribly generic, it's Burns' eye and sensationalism that frames ghosties with confidence. First as flowing amoeba extensions that swirl darkness through background depths, then more engaged as forms take definite shapes. Ethan's self-built homing beacon glows a most dangerous orange as his gaze remains transfixed on the machine in front of him and not the horrors behind. Good exists in this straight-forward "never trust an imaginary friend" tale, largely noticeable in cinematography, make-up, and Burns' ability to heighten the ordinary. Meditative and moody, captured in a way that links grieving trauma into not-for-long invisible beings.

Of course, Our House is a narrative about moving on. A rumination on the many different ways humans can react to despair. A reminder that no single person will mirror another's experience. Burns' take on the matter may contain a few more outreached blackened hands and sweet little girls whispering to ghost people hiding under beds, but at its core, these universal anxieties harness such a film's power. Pet Sematary all over again. Do we dwell and "dig up" the past in favor of happier times? Or press on as those who've gone are still with us in memory. By playing out these questions, Our House climbs a few rungs higher than similar films that've stoked the same themes with far less empathy or catharsis.

The above wouldn't be possible without three close-as-kin actors who openly embrace one another. Mann, trying to do his best for the two younglings who depend on him. Percy Hynes White, the angry and chastise-prone sibling who blames brother Ethan for an accident brought upon by fate. Kate Moyer, the mousy innocent who can't fully comprehend why communicating with dead individuals could be costly nor the problem with "bringing back" someone. Together, they're a unit who backs one another be it at swim practice or during breakfast rituals, and their chemistry flows through the house be it warmth or fear. Curiosity heightens as afterlife connections grow stronger, but their paranoia reads just as true. Strong performances that double Burns' ability to leverage emotional stakes over cheap scares.

Our House won't paralyze or cripple audiences via horrific spooks, but makes for a finely detailed fight against our own human tendencies. Anthony Scott Burns proves himself worthy in debut form, even if Nathan Parker plays it descriptively "safe" despite an opening vinyl record sequence that's closest to Burns' "Father's Day" form. From there, Thomas Mann protectively drives this heartbreaking familial rebuild lullaby into malevolent reaches that must be conquered together. Brothers and sisters defeating the demons of their past and present. A sweeter after-dark flavor than certain audiences may be expecting.

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10(Our House will be available to watch on VOD and other services on July 27, 2018.)