The Deep House screened at Grimmfest 2021
“Everything’s weird underwater,” says Ben (James, son of Mick, Jagger) some way into The Deep House. He is a historian turned YouTuber who likes to film himself and his girlfriend Tina (Camille Rowe) visiting supposedly haunted ruins – but as his videos fail to get enough hits to bring in the money, he decides to raise the stakes. His plan is to travel to a place in France where an entire village was flooded in the Eighties, and still remains an underwater ghost town. Yet this ‘secret spot’ turns out to be full of like-minded tourists – “Every dickhead with a GoPro’s down there”, Ben comments, his words coming with an irony that does not go unnoticed by Tina. A creepy local named Pierre (Éric Savin) tells them that most of the houses were destroyed before the flooding anyway, and offers to guide them to “an isolated run of the lake that runs deep into the woods” at whose bottom “there’s a perfectly preserved house.” Desperate to salvage the trip, Ben leaps at the opportunity. “You’ve got 60 mins of air. And you can hold your breath for close to 3”, Ben tells Tina 18 minutes into the film (and almost exactly 63 minutes before its end) – and from here on, everything’s in real time and underwater, defamiliarising the tropes of both the haunted house and ‘urban explorers‘ movie into something rich and strange.
Writing/directing team Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury (Inside, 2007) like to splice together different influences into unexpected combinations in their features: their Livid (2011) hybridised home invasion with Lewis Carroll and Eyes Without A Face (1960) with Suspiria (1977); their Among The Living (2014) brought together Stand By Me (1986), The Hills Have Eyes (1977) and The Funhouse (1981); their Texas Chain Saw Massacre prequel Leatherface (2017) found the slaughterman’s origins somewhere between One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and Badlands (1973); and their Kandisha (2020) made an improbable merger of Bernard Rose’s Candyman (1992) and Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood (2014). The Deep House offers a similarly murky mishmash of disparate sources. On the one hand, it at first sets out to swim in the same streams as, for example, Neil Jordan’s In Dreams (1999), Ray Lawrence’s Jindabyne (2001), Koji Shiraishi’s Noroi (2005), televison’s The Returned (2012-2015), Ryan Gosling’s Lost River (2014), Choo Chang-min’s Seven Years Of Night (2018) and Takashi Shimizu’s Howling Village (2019) – a loose subgenre of films in which submerged communities become the sunken, surreal mirror image of life above the surface. Yet soon The Deep House veers into its own tributary, diving down to a single residence (with attached crypt), and becoming, in its last hour, like an extended version of the underwater sequence from Dario Argento’s Inferno (1980). In these dark waters there are corpses and ghosts, black magic and a haunted house whose familiar tropes are renewed precisely for their being subaqueous.
As Tina and Ben explore room by room, and realise that they have become trapped together in this building with their oxygen running out and other presences gradually making themselves known, Ben’s inner conflicts are revealed. On the one hand, he wants to come out of this adventure alive, while on the other, he sees every spooky encounter as an exploitable moment that will gain him hits, and so, like any viewer of horror, he simultaneously wants the dread to stop, and to go on (while his more reluctant partner Tina just wants it to stop). “Jolt scares get the maximum likes”, he says after Tina – and we with her – get a fright from a suddenly emerging fish. “Cool, creepy dolls always work,” he observes as the house, despite being underwater, has all the grotesque family portraits, unnerving newspaper clippings, hidden chambers and, yes, creepy dolls that we expect from a haunted house movie. Ben’s lines offer a meta-commentary on the making of The Deep House itself – for Ben is seeking, like Maury and Bustillo, to bring all these clichéd elements together in a unique setting and manner to enhance the appeal of the filmmaking to a horror-loving audience. There is even, in this most reflexive of ghost stories, a sequence in which Tina is attacked by hanging chains that hook onto her flesh – as though to offer an inverted, liquid vision of what Maury and Bustillo might have done if they had ever completed the Hellraiser reimagining to which they were once attached. Meanwhile, Ben calls his specialist underwater drone camera ‘Tom’ – “Like a Peeping Tom,” Tina explains to Pierre, “someone who likes to watch”, even as her words also evoke the title of a 1960 horror film from Michael Powell that is as metacinematic as this one. Like Ben, the owners of the deep house were keen, well-equipped filmmakers – and almost inevitably, the flim’s climax unfolds in an underwater cinema, and slashes through the fourth wall.
Given that two thirds of The Deep House was filmed underwater, it is hard to imagine how challenging the shoot must have been. The choice to make the film this way certainly ensures that the locations come with a refreshingly topsy-turvy feel, liberating them from being too timeworn – after all, everything’s weird underwater – but the disadvantage of this is that the footage can at times, even by the standards of horror, be underlit and lacking in focus. The final image might at first seem an abrupt clash of Jesus Christ pose and devilish defeat, but in retrospect, both Christian and anti-Christian imagery has recurred throughout, and that ending is just its unresolved culmination.
strap: In Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo’s deep-diving ghost story, a YouTubing couple explores an underwater haunted house
© Anton Bitel