House of 9 (2005)

*. I like how the Voice (credited as the Watcher) begins by telling everyone that he’s sure “they’ve all seen the shows.” The contestants, like the audience watching this movie, know the drill. No need for instructions or explanations. Last man or woman standing gets the cash and a showroom full of glamorous prizes. Let the games begin.
*. In 2005 I think the Watcher has to be referencing shows like Survivor and Big Brother, which both had U.S. debuts in 2000 (though they were taken from Dutch TV originals that had begun airing in 1997). Cube had been released in 1997, but while there are similarities to that film it’s really a bit different and Cube was seen by almost nobody when it first came out. Its cult status was still something new. Battle Royale was released in 2000. Saw had come out just a year earlier and while the Watcher’s lines may have been added later I don’t know how much of an inspiration Saw would have been to the initial concept.
*. Nevertheless, I think we all do get the point. House of 9 belongs to a genre we might call the Game of Death, which can be traced back to sources like The Most Dangerous Game and And Then Were None. What was new in the twenty-first century was the surveillance theme.
*. As for why the Watcher is doing this, his brief introduction gives us this explanation: “I want you to consider yourselves to be mice in a laboratory, rats in a cage if you will, because this is the ultimate test of human character, only here this test is purely for entertainment. My entertainment.”
*. Is he telling the truth? There seems to be a big gap between the experiments a scientist does and the personal gratification provided by mere entertainment. And given how much the Watcher has obviously invested in the project, don’t we think he might have splurged on some better cameras?
*. The way these movies work is pretty simple. We are the Watcher, and the game show format is both simple to understand and effective at creating drama. It’s reality TV, which, while not always scripted, has nothing at all to do with reality. Everything about what we’re seeing is artificial. We’re dropping normal people into an extraordinary, high-pressure situation and watching them come undone.
*. It’s also pared-down filmmaking. As a rule, such movies don’t have much in the way of beginnings (the characters just wake up in a locked room) or endings (with the completion of the game left vague and ambiguous). Most of the action takes place on a single set (like the cube, a grungy bathroom, an elevator, or a futuristic circle). It’s simple stuff, but such simplicity might explain the genre’s popularity with indie writers and directors.
*. You do, however, still need to have a decent script. Here is where House of 9 starts to fall apart. Specifically, it collapses with a house party the contestants decide to throw where nearly everybody gets drunk and stoned while listening to music. This struck me as a totally unbelievable moment, right down to the use of the music to make it all play like an extended pop interlude.
*. What the house party leads to is the first death, which only occurs because (a) everyone is drunk and stoned, and (b) there’s an accident. In other words, the Game of Death has been crossed with an idiot plot, needing this moment of stupidity to get things going.
*. None of the characters are remotely believable. Why is the married guy crazy? Because he’s an artist? Because his wife’s death has triggered a latent lipstick fetish? Would the story have worked if he wasn’t a psychopath? Why is the cop such an idiot about waving his gun around all the time? Why doesn’t the black guy take the cop’s gun after he kills him? And what the hell is Dennis Hopper doing here?
*. Hopper is absolutely dreadful playing an Irish priest. He has no purpose but to cross himself over and over, bless the Spartan meals, and offer up homilies and useless advice like “You must all look inside yourselves, and that which you find there will save you.” I couldn’t make up my mind whether the film was trying to make fun of him or if this was inadvertent. I think it was unintended.
*. I mean, does Father Duffy really say “You need to learn to do unto others as you’d have done to unto you“? He does. That’s hilarious. Guess there wasn’t time for a retake. Or . . . did no one notice?
*. I didn’t like much about this one. The script and performances are poor. The editing was noticeably garbled at times. The premise was just a throwaway. I did like the set, though it seemed far larger than would have been necessary. Also the twist at the end was pretty good. As with Cube, it seems we’re stuck inside a whole Game of Death universe. But then, that may be all the point these movies are making. Life is a game and then you die.

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