First published by TheHorrorShow
Before we see anything in Girl House, we hear female gasps – although it is unclear whether they are expressions of pleasure or pain. Agony is suggested by the delay effect through which these moans are filtered, echoing the signature aural tic of Friday the 13th (1980) and its many sequels, and so anticipating the slasher modalities to which Girl House itself will in the end conform. Yet ecstasy is implied by the subsequent title sequence – a montage of pages and postures from porn websites. The difference is confused even further by an introductory post-credits text on the easy path from pornography to violence, quoted from none other than notorious serial killer Ted Bundy; and then by a prologue (from 1988) in which a young, overweight boy enacts a murderous revenge upon a girl for seducing and then humiliating him. Here sexual fantasy can lead to more destructive urges.
Cut to the present, and that girl’s cruel taunt for him – “Loverboy” – has become his online handle as he sits in his basement, listening to the voices in his head, talking to a dressed-up mannequin (shades of Maniac), and looking for remote love in erotic livestreams. Eventually the “total sweetie” Loverboy (played by hiphop MC George Carroll, aka Slaine) will don the grotesque rubber mask of a woman to hide his own face as he commits further vengeful murder, but for now his only mask is the anonymity of the internet, allying Girl House to other thrillers from 2014 – like Open Windows, The Den and Unfriended – that reflect our anxieties about the new wired world.
Lined up against this unstable predator is Kylie Atkins (Ali Cobrin), entering the arena of cyber-eros to pay her own way through college after her father’s recent death. Kylie may be a fresh face at the softer end of porn, but she is not naïve, asking her new boss Gary Preston (James Thomas) upfront: “How do I make sure one of these guys doesn’t start stalking me?” His response is to declare Girl House – whose stable of nubile young women performs to multiple cameras and interacts with remote users – “the most secure, technologically advanced site of its kind… pretty much the Fort Knox of websites.” And while these security measures will easily be bypassed and exploited by the computer-savvy Loverboy in his enraged eagerness to punish a perceived slight, Gary really does take the safety of his staff seriously – much as he affords the women in his employ the freedom to choose for themselves how far they wish their sexual services to go.
In the last decade there has been a lot of so-called ‘torture porn’ (where the phrase’s second word is usually a mere figure of speech), but conversely there have been very few genre titles set within the actual porn industry (or something analogous to it). Both Demonlover (2002) and Hostel (2005) posit hyperbolical versions of the business at its sadistic outer extremes, while A Serbian Film (2010) uses pornography as a metaphor for the exploitation of an entire nation – but only Girl House uses an online bordello as the dynamic background for a stalk-and-slash psychodrama (while giving the porn industry itself an easy ride). The film may be prodding at all manner of anxieties about the virtual, vicarious lives that we lead online, but it is certainly not a puritanical tract against sex work. The Girl House itself is presented as a haven of fair play and fair pay, where the consent is no less explicit than the content. It is like the Big Brother house, only with better facilities and the ability to come and go freely.
Rather than muddy the waters with a portrayal of pornography’s less salubrious side, the film offers an idealised version of the industry at its most responsible and respectful to its workers. This is porn, but as Kylie says, “It’s not like skanky Boogie Nights porn” – and when Gary describes himself as “the Hugh Hefner for the 21st century”, he is referring more to his entrepreneurial acumen than to any horny libertinage (unlike old Hugh, Gary never touches his Playmates). Here the house’s only dark side is introduced by a returning junkie ‘Latina’, and by a psychotic intruder with a toolbox. Still, perhaps for a more sobering, balanced view of the business’ workings, Girl House might sensibly be viewed alongside the documentary Hot Girls Wanted (2015).
For his directorial debut, Trevor Matthews (the star of co-director Jon Knautz’s Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer and The Shrine) uses the POVs of the house’s own installed webcams (as in My Little Eye) to cast us as paying voyeurs and to confront us with our own complicity in all the carnal spectacle on screen – but he also sensibly does not confine himself to diegetic camerawork. This is not a found footage film, even though the murders are being livestreamed to horrified members around the world. Once the slice-and-dice mayhem gets started, there is a variety of grotesque slayings, including 247˚F-style sauna entrapment and death by dildo – but Matthews takes his time getting there, at first focusing more on observing the characters at work and at play, so that we, along with the paying clients, experience “the sensation of actually getting to know” the girls in the house. Refreshingly, the mad dash by Kylie’s boyfriend Ben (Adam DiMarco) to rescue his damsel in distress proves an irrelevance coloured bright herring-red, as our designated final girl turns the camera on her special viewer and takes care of business on her own terms. Girl House finds the pleasure of horror in these women’s painful encounter with their masked on-looker – and for the ultimate self-referential viewing experience, this is best watched as video on demand.