Yesterday I found myself thinking about a short film I first saw in 2005 or so—”Mood House”:
It’s a very curious video, and it’s stayed with me ever since (especially the line, “You’re not garbage, and I don’t know why you were treated like garbage!”). I admire it and have long wanted to write something about it. Well, today’s the day. (Actually, this week is the day; this will take me more than one post.)
“Mood House” (2003) was written, directed, and performed by Richard “Lowtax” Kyanka and Kevin “Fragmaster” Bowen, two of the guys behind the long-running humor website Something Awful. (I’ve peeked at that site from time to time, although not in the past five or six years, and I’ve never toured it all that thoroughly.) “Mood House” is not their first film, and it is in fact a sequel of sorts—a reworking, really—of another one of their shorts, “Doom House” (also 2003):
Actually, analyzing “Doom House” will go a long way toward helping us make sense of “Mood House.” For one thing, it’s a much easier film to write about. So let’s start there.
(For those curious, here‘s the September 2003 post where Kyanka and Bowen announced and released this film. And here‘s a Something Awful “review” promoting it.)
Right away, “Doom House” puts us in much more familiar territory. It opens with some credits, then uses an establishing shot (of the house) to locate where the action will take place. Then we’re introduced to our protagonist, “Reginald P. Linux” (Kyanka—ah, early 2000s Linux humor), who explains through voice-over narration the film’s back-story: his wife has died, and he’s moving into what he hopes will be his dream house. Finally, we get some blatant foreshadowing (the foreboding music, the philosopher’s quote).
And for the first ten minutes or so, the action proceeds fairly coherently and familiarly—that is to say, conventionally. Let’s look at four different aspects of the production to see how that’s so.
Kyanka delivers his dialogue in a broad and mannered fashion, but he emotes clearly, and speaks his expository thoughts aloud:
- “My new house!”
- “What is that? What an odd looking figurine! Why is this figurine in my house?”
- “Wait a minute! How did that statuette get over there? I’m gonna get rid of you once and for all!”
These lines are meant to be comedic, to be sure, but they still clarify the action. (Imagine, by way of contrast, the film being acted out silently. “Doom House” isn’t all that visual; Kyanka and Bowen rely primarily on dialogue to advance and communicate their plot.) What’s more, Kyanka’s strained performance style—his forced manner of speaking, his slowly exaggerated gestures, his habit of slapping his hands together—is recognizable as a particular type of comedy: “mugging.”
Meanwhile, the film’s visual style is relatively traditional, and mostly invisible. Despite some fleeting fragmentary moments (see for instance 0:53–1:21, when Kyanka exits his car and approaches the house), and some deliberate continuity errors (Kyanka’s flannel shirt and hat come and go between certain shots), “Doom House” mostly obeys established Hollywood conventions of shooting and editing—what’s called “continuity editing.” (See this short video for more on that topic, and a demonstration of how it was used in V for Vendetta (2006).) The camera angles are unobtrusive, and establishing shots are used to elide the passage of time. (Note, too, that the house’s exterior is shown during nighttime [at 4:57 and 5:27] when Kyanka goes to sleep, maintaining continuity.) The short is silly, but its narrative is spatially and temporally coherent.
The soundtrack reinforces this overall coherence by closely matching the image track, even while the filmmakers wring some humor from a few exaggerated sound effects (the severe echoes at 1:31–1:35 and 3:10–3:15, the creaking door at 3:04 and 3:24). Those sound effects are themselves a familiar kind of humor—more mugging, really—signaling to the audience that we shouldn’t take the plot or the film all that seriously. (Kyanka and Bowen have already told us as much with the opening titles.) Likewise, even the film’s most disruptive moments, like the jarring insert shots of the figurine at 2:08–2:10 and again at 3:45–3:55, are easily understood within the larger narrative (Kyanka is looking at the doll), as well as within the movie’s genre—they serve as parodies of established horror conventions. (Indeed, the joke here is that Kyanka doesn’t recognize how dangerously horrific the doll is. Which is itself a joke, because the doll, while grotesque, is pretty innocuous.)
The film’s humor, finally, relies on a few consistent strategies (consistent in that they are used throughout the film):
- the garish incongruousness of the figurine;
- the hyperbolic score (the best moment comes at 8:53, when the when cop arrives and the dramatic music cuts out suddenly);
- the broadness of Kyanka’s performance;
- the unusual word choices used in some of the dialogue—e.g., “Time to hit the old bed-stack!”, “Leave my happy house!”, and “I’m going to cut your hair and put it in a bowl!”;
- small random details, like the cat that’s wandering around, oblivious to the fact that it’s in a movie.
So while “Doom House” is certainly affected (“It’s wacky!”), it obeys the dominant conventions of mainstream commercial filmmaking. It’s a pretty simple film, really: a widower who’s trying to rebuild his life can’t rid himself of a creepy figurine. It’s a horror-comedy, one more comedic than horrific. It’s also a farce, sharing a lineage with movies like Adam Sandler’s Billy Madison (1995):
…Steve Martin and Carl Reiner’s The Jerk (1979):
…and Jerry Lewis’s The Ladies Man (1961):
—a long tradition (that of course stretches back much further than that). And while it’s not as as brilliant as those three films, “Doom House” is a fun little movie. (I’m particularly impressed with how edited it is—see, for instance, the sequence that runs from 4:55–7:10. That took a lot of planning and direction. Kyanka and Bowen didn’t have to put anywhere near as much effort into this short as they did.)
That all said, “Doom House” has plenty of problems. The primary one is that the direction, while thoughtful, is also fairly leaden. Although the short is made “properly,” it’s too slowly paced, causing the first two-thirds to feel overlong. They don’t have enough content to sustain them, in all honesty. Comedic strategies 1, 2, and 5 (above) don’t provide all that much material, leaving the film to rely on 3 and 4—in other words, Kyanka’s performance. And that, while amusingly quirky, doesn’t quite carry the proceedings.
Things improve significantly around the 9-minute mark, when Kevin Bowen appears, playing the police officer. Put simply, the action really picks up. Bowen is the better performer here, very funny and cute, and very talented at improv. Certainly the dialogue gets weirder; Bowen doesn’t seem capable of delivering a straight line:
- “Baggies! I’ve seen these before! Oh-h! This is evidence!”
- “Well, my advice to you as a cop is to move out of here. That’s the only path I can see you taking. This will eat you up, and you’ll die. Then you will be in a graveyard.”
- “I told you to clear out of the doom house. Do you want to have…this horror?”
- “Do you know that creepy doll? It’s part of the doom house mystique, and you’ve got it in spades, so you get out.”
- “You seem like a man of many words. But let me tell you this, howabout. If you don’t move out of the doom house, it could spell your doom.”
(It’s no surprise that most of the memorable lines at the film’s IMDb page are his.)
Like Kyanka (who becomes the movie’s straight man at this point), Bowen behaves in a rather stilted and disaffected manner—but to a more extreme degree. Twice he abruptly walks off-camera in the middle of conversations (see 10:14 and 11:50), the second time taking a pet gate with him. The film matches this intrusion by becoming stylistically weirder; the established coherence begins breaking down. The visual style, for instance, becomes much more varied, abandoning straight continuity editing:
- some foreground items partially conceal Bowen while he’s speaking (9:50–10:06);
- we cut suddenly to dramatic and unmotivated camera angles (10:08, 10:38, 10:53);
- the nighttime establishing shots are contradicted by sunlit interior scenes (9:00–13:10);
- Bowen doesn’t return Kyanka’s gaze while delivering much of his dialogue (this happens throughout his performance);
- the camera suddenly zooms in on Bowen while he’s speaking (11:39–11:45);
- other continuity errors also increase, especially during Kyanka’s reaction shots (his costuming and positioning change repeatedly).
The film’s conflict also shifts (rather suddenly, at 13:13—right after the “gentleman’s agreement” line), becoming one between Kyanka and Bowen (the doll figurine all but disappears once Bowen shows up). Simultaneously, the film switches genres, from horror to action.
Despite all of this, “Doom House” remains fairly easy to follow, and its overall form remains familiar, due to its adherence to standard genre conventions. Bowen explains that the reason for the house’s curse is its having been built over a “terrorist burial camp,” an action-film variation on a cliched horror trope. (Stephen King and Arnold Schwarzenegger are the the formative influences of my generation.) And the man-to-man conflict is swiftly resolved with a fight, punctuated with both a one-liner and casual racism: “Playtime’s over! Take this doll head, you towel-head!” The lackluster fight scene is matched by an ironically downbeat ending: “I (h)ate wood! I’m—I’m—so—so—bored!” One final comedic title card later, and it’s all over.
And that’s “Doom House.” It was obviously made in the spirit of having some fun (which extends to the movie’s IMDb page—check out the section on its budget), and done far better than it needed to be. And had Kyanka and Bowen stopped there, I probably would have watched the thing once or twice, chuckled a bit, then forgotten it.
But instead they went on to make “Mood House,” a much better film, which I’ll write about in the next installment (I’ll post it in a few days).
[Update 2 June 11: More like a couple of weeks, sorry!] [Update 5 June 11: It’s now up, here.]
6 thoughts on “From “Doom House” to “Mood House”: How Simple Aesthetic Strategies Can Create Experimental Films, part 1”