With Halloween officially in the rear view, those who love mainlining schlocky horror flicks like an IV bag full of splatter and gore still have a healthy hankering for streaming spooky content. So, when a movie with a title like Death House slides into view, with such a murderer’s row of notable scream queens and monster actors that it was marketed as “The Expendables of horror,” it becomes an easy layup. Who doesn’t want to indulge in some lowest common denominator thrills on a random weeknight after scrolling Netflix mindlessly for hours?

Well, anyone who discovers that this B-movie is poisoned by ambitions beyond the ability of its filmmakers. Death House looks like a stupid, fun throwaway picture, but in execution, tries far too hard to be scintillating in a way no one who presses play on a movie called Death House would ever desire.

The film follows a pair of FBI agents (played by Cortny Palm and Cody Longo) who take a tour of a high-tech, supermax prison facility designed for the sickest and most dangerous killers alive. Run by Dr. Eileen Fletcher (horror icon Dee Wallace), the Death House of the title is sci-fi labyrinth crossbred between the dream-scape exploration of Tarsem’s 2000 film The Cell and the weird panopticon insanity of the Cube series. A myriad of killers get analyzed by sending freshly recruited victims to their cells while others get brainwashed into following a more normative morality.

But whose morality? For some ungodly reason, writer/director Harrison Smith felt as though, in making a movie called Death House that viewers might be interested in long, drawn out discussions about the ethical implications of the film’s central mega jail. This being a movie about a prison full of bloodthirsty maniacs, the real meat is always going to be in the inevitable sequence where the security system is shut down and they all get loose. That plot point occurs midway through the running time, but the build to that point is the worst community college philosophy course regurgitated by actors who just do not possess the necessary acuity to sell these thorny ruminations.

When the monsters do all get loose, led by former Jason Vorhees performer Kane Hodder as a Neo-Nazi mastermind, Smith robs viewers of the carnage and action by filming all the most thrilling bits largely in the dark, with incoherent blocking, bad editing and the kind of creative decisions that seem entirely motivated by a lack of budget and not any interest in legibly lensing a set piece.

This movie was originally conceived of by Texas Chainsaw Massacre star Gunnar Hansen as a vehicle to get a big cast full of his pals from the horror show circuit into one movie. It succeeds in that aim cosmetically, as this was Hansen’s last film before he passed, and everyone from Tony Todd to Sid Haig makes an appearance, but the filmmaker who took his original concept across the finish line just didn’t have the chops to make this what it ought to have been.

No one goes into a movie called Death House expecting Citizen Kane, but in his reach woefully exceeding his grasp, Smith assembled an incredible on-screen team in service of a finished product at diametrical odds with its stated goals. A shame, really, to waste those performers’ collective times as well as the viewer’s.

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