Netflix has a habit of quietly dropping substantial, worthwhile art onto its streaming platform without any promotion or fanfare, but I’m not sure I’ve ever been as surprised by one of its dead quiet in-house releases as I was by The House. The only reason this stop-motion anthology caught my eye is that one of its three segments was directed by the animators of This Magnificent Cake! (Emma De Swaef & Marc James Roels), and I recognized the visual trademarks of their work on the thumbnail poster. Otherwise, I haven’t seen much official promotion or social media hoopla signaling the film’s uneventful release this month, at least not without looking for it directly. And when I search for reviews & press releases covering The House, different sites appear to be in conflict about what it even is. Netflix lists it as a one-time “special”. IMDb & Rotten Tomatoes list it as a three-episode season of a supposedly ongoing “series” (likely because its three segments are credited to three different sets of animators). Meanwhile, review sites like AV Club & RogerEbert.com are treating it as a standalone feature film. That’s the category that registers as correct to me, given that it’s contained in one 97min presentation with no rigid episode breaks. Still, I do think the general confusion about its format is indicative of Netflix’s constant, apathetic flood of #content with no attention paid to the promotion or artistic value of anything that’s not going to earn the company Oscars or Emmys.
A large part of the reason The House holds together as a standalone feature film is that all three of its segments were penned by a single screenwriter, Enda Walsh. As the tones & visual styles shift between each segment’s separate animation teams (De Swaef & Roels, Niki Lindroth von Bahr, Paloma Baeza), Walsh maintains a strong narrative core throughout as the central authorial voice. The House is a darkly funny stop-motion anthology about a cursed house’s journey through different eras of doomed owners. Divided between the past, the present, and the future of the ornate structure, each set of its owners are working class rubes who are mesmerized by its opulence & grandeur, convinced that it will bring wealth & social status into their lives with just a little hard work & determination. Each segment ends with the lesson-learned punchline of a centuries-old ghost story or fairy tale, with the owners’ obsession with the house inevitably absorbing them into its walls & bones. It all amounts to a pretty relatable horror story about how “owning” a house basically means a house owns you – something that debt-saddled Millennials should be able to recognize as a real-world truth, anyway.
As with all horror anthologies, The House varies in quality from segment to segment. De Swaef & Roels open the film on its strongest, eeriest footing, while the hopeful note Baeza concludes with feels like its weakest step. Between those bookends, there’s a great wealth of gorgeous animation, dark humor, and melancholy. De Swaef & Roels have the most distinct visual style of the batch (working with the same textured felts & beading that distinguished This Magnificent Cake!), while von Bahr & Baeza both play with the taxidermy-in-motion style of Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox. Overall, it’s Walsh’s consistency in theme & tone that holds the film’s structure together as a convincing, satisfying whole. I found this film just as visually & narratively impressive as any animation project I’ve seen in the past couple years, and yet its release has been so barebones that professional media critics can’t even decide whether it’s a Film at all. Maybe I’ll be embarrassed next year when a Season 2 of The House is released on Netflix and my miscategorization is confirmed, but in all likelihood I wouldn’t even be aware a follow-up exists at all.