Classic ‘haunted house’ tropes collide with psychological horror in The House on Pine Street, a simmering, moody effort from directors Aaron and Austin Keeling that functions best in its examinations of familial discord. Heavy on atmosphere and unfortunately light on scares, it’s ultimately an underwhelming effort that finds some overdue momentum as it heads towards its finale.
Young couple Luke (Taylor Bottles) and Jennifer (a disappointingly one-note Emily Goss) move into a new house in small-town Kansas with a view to making a happy family home for the baby they have on the way (by the way, is anyone else getting a little tired of pregnancy being employed purely as a device for amping up tension?). It’s established fairly quickly that neither of them – Jennifer especially – is particularly happy with the situation, a feeling which is exacerbated following a visit from her mother, who spends the film alternating between quietly supportive and cartoonishly bitchy depending on what best serves the story.
While the film doesn’t exactly open with an argument, the backstory is introduced nicely enough, with long-standing issues and arguments hinted at enough to give us sufficient knowledge of the various factors that have brought them to this point. Some of the film’s best dramatic work comes in a housewarming party thrown for Luke and Jennifer by her mother, and it’s shortly after this that Jennifer starts to hear strange noises in the house. As the situation escalates, it’s up to us to decide whether the stress of the situation is driving her to hallucination, or if something more sinister is at play.
The couple are visited by their friend Lauren (Natalie Pellegrini) and her young son, and it’s around this point that The House on Pine Street enters its most obviously problematic spell. More shaky characterisation creeps to the surface, with Lauren’s interest in helping Jennifer to investigate the strange happenings at the house veering ad hoc between total skepticism and Scooby Doo-levels of bug-eyed enthusiasm. It’s a stretch of the film that starts to play like a Haunted House Greatest Hits set: Lauren’s child creepily waves to an unseen figure, Jennifer explores strange and sudden bangs by tiptoeing around the house at a snail’s pace, doors open and close on their own, and all the while everyone seems to display either a deep-seated aversion to or blind ignorance of the existence and function of light switches. By the time a wisdom-dispensing elderly medium (they say he’s not a medium, but you know it and I know it, that’s the purpose he serves) is wheeled out before the halfway mark, Pine Street is in serious danger of drowning irrecoverably in its susceptibility to the trappings of the genre in which it’s found its home.
Fortunately, things start looking up around here. As the situation (or Jennifer’s mental state) worsens, some clever visual trickery kicks the suspense up a notch, and Taylor Bottles steps up to the dramatic plate with aplomb when Luke starts to feel a real and obvious conflict between his skepticism about Jennifer’s claims and his devotion to her and her welfare. Elsewhere, Jennifer turns to her mother for support, and the scenes in her house provide Pine Street with its most tender moments. It’s fair to say that the film gains a tighter handle on cohesion as it heads for its conclusion: a solid payoff with a smart, understated sting in the tail.
All things considered, The House on Pine Street is a film that is probably just a little lacking in bite, and while its commitment to its slow-burn atmosphere is commendable, the impact is leavened by its willingness to get a little too comfortable with genre clichés. There’s potential here, both in writing and direction, and while this ultimately never really connects like it aspires to, there’s still some room left for curiosity about what will come next from Aaron and Austin Keeling.