Abattoir (2016)

First published by Little White Lies, as Part 17 of my Cinema Psychotronicum column

“Our houses are such unwieldy properties that we are often imprisoned rather than housed by them.”

It begins with this textual quote from Henry David Thoreau. An opening credits sequence follows, showing newspaper headlines about bizarre crime scenes – and then comes a voice-over narration. Indeed, Abattoir is a wordy affair, as befits a film whose arch-villain – and narrator – Jebediah Crane (Dayton Callie) is, by his own account, “a man of words… tongue dipped in silver”. Crane is a collector of both stories and storeys, which is to say that he has, over a 50-year period, been removing wholesale from different dwellings the rooms where acts of deadly violence have taken place, and rebuilding from them a composite house whose every room resonates with its own haunting, for reasons that will only gradually become clear.

In the mid-Noughties, when ‘torture porn’ was at its peak, Darren Lynn Bousman was responsible for helming Saw II, III and IV, so that he occupied the dead centre of horror’s mainstream. It would, however, be a mistake to dismiss him as a purveyor of the purely conventional – after all, his extensive filmography also includes a pair of deeply mannered, margin-pushing horror musicals (Repo! The Genetic Opera and Alleluia! The Devil’s Carnival). Abattoir, his latest, may at heart be a haunted house movie, but it also disassembles and reconstructs that sub-genre with reflexive relish, and refurnishes those well-trodden hallways and basements with genuine invention.

Julia Talben (Jessica Lowndes) writes about real estate for Los Angeles paper The Metro Daily, but would rather be a crime investigator. Her two journalistic interests combine after her sister Amanda (Jackie Tuttle), brother-in-law and nephew are brutally murdered in their home, and then the room in which the massacre occurred is taken away by the mysterious Crane. Helped by her sometime lover, the homicide detective Declan Grady (Joe Anderson), Julia follows an irrational trail that leads to New English, an industrial ghost town in Louisiana. Taking up lodgings there with long-time resident Allie (genre queen Lin Shaye), Julia is confronted with a piece of her own missing history, and finds herself willingly being woven into the fabric of someone else’s infernal story of domestic loss.

“Guys like that don’t give exposition,” Declan warns Julia when she states her intention to interview her sister’s incarcerated murderer. “You’re getting too close to this one, kiddo,” Julia is told by her editor (Bryan Batt) – to which she responds, “This is where I ignore you and chase it anyway.” Julia is always racing forwards (and backwards) to places she shouldn’t go, in accordance with the demands of movie convention as much as personal destiny – and yet so self-conscious are these lines about their status as well-established tropes (who, besides academics and critics, ever uses the term ‘exposition’?) that Christopher Monfette’s witty dialogue becomes diabolically metacinematic. It is almost as though these characters, following clues that include a VHS tape and an old projector reel, are no less caught in a prison-house of cinema and its clichés than tormented souls have become trapped in Crane’s prefab home.

Much as Crane has pieced together his house from many haunted rooms, Bousmann takes a similar jigsaw-like approach to genre, stitching several mismatching modes of cinematic storytelling together into a hybrid whole, and letting the cracks show. For in its opening LA section, Abattoir is a neo-noir, all neon lighting and shadow play, ‘vintage’ clothes and cars, and smart, stylised exchanges between a hardboiled ‘tec and a plucky dame; in its middle, Louisiana-set section, the film transforms itself into a Southern gothic of smalltown conspiracy, family secrets and something  unseen (but heard) in the woods; and the film’s climax is the ultimate haunted house sequence, compounding multiple ghostly scenarios in a loopy labyrinth of distressing, CG-heavy eternal return. Perhaps Abattoir is an unwieldy property, coming with all its assembly work exposed – but, just as Crane promises near the beginning, “what a magnificent structure” it turns out to be. Prepare to get lost in its multi-levelled madness, and to have your familiarity with horror’s ever-revenant tropes thoroughly deconstructed.

© Anton Bitel