Review: Talking to the dead turns troublesome in supernatural thriller ‘Our House’

After countless supernatural thrillers, one lesson should be clear, both to the characters and the audience: Let the dead stay dead. The trick is to make the motivation to speak to spirits so powerful that even the most horror-savvy can’t resist.

“Our House” gets those emotional underpinnings firmly in place, then spends much of its running time shoring them up — sometimes at the expense of delivering scares.

Thomas Mann stars as Ethan, a brilliant college student working on a machine to generate power cheaply and wirelessly. When his parents die unexpectedly, Ethan quits school to take care of his teenage brother Matt (Percy Hynes White) and younger sister Becca (Kate Moyer). Then he tinkers with his invention again and finds it can conjure messages and manifestations from beyond the grave.

Director Anthony Scott Burns and screenwriter Nathan Parker (adapting an earlier film by Matt Osterman) aim more for realistic family drama than a spook-fest. There’s almost as much in “Our House” about Ethan’s struggle to be a good guardian as there is him weighing whether it’s a good idea to keep talking to ghosts.

When the movie shifts more toward fright in its final third, Burns and Parker don’t have much new or exciting to offer. But with the help of a strong performance from Mann, they do a good job capturing one family’s feelings of brokenness, and how far they’d go to get back what they lost.

‘Our House’: Fantasia Review

Thomas Mann plays a young inventor who discovers a link to the afterlife in Anthony Scott Burns’ ghost tale.

A haunted-house metaphor for the psychological perils of not dealing with grief, Anthony Scott Burns’ Our House finds three recently orphaned kids grappling with what may be a means of communicating with their parents. A remake of Matt Osterman’s lower-budget Ghost From the Machine — which, like this pic, had its debut at the Fantasia International Film Festival — this slow-building chiller emphasizes family bonds over scares. Though it lacks the go-for-the-throat spirit seemingly required to succeed in the broader horror marketplace these days, its sincerity and polish should impress genre die-hards, building interest for the first-timer’s next project, Come True.

Thomas Mann (Some Freaks) stars as Ethan, a college student hoping to turn Nikola Tesla’s theories of wireless electrical transmission into a commercial reality. He has a gizmo built atop what appears to be an old record turntable, but repeated experiments fail to send sufficient juice through the air to a nearby light bulb. On the eve of his latest test, after he cuts a family visit short so he and classmate/girlfriend Hannah (Nicola Peltz) can return to the campus lab, Ethan’s parents die in a car crash.

Three months later, Ethan has dropped out of college to care for younger siblings Becca (Kate Moyer) and Matt (Percy Hynes White). But he hasn’t given up on his invention: As he tinkers with it in the garage, Burns’ roving camera foreshadows a connection between that device and Becca’s belief that Mom is talking to her when she’s by herself.

All three kids come to understand that Ethan is generating some kind of electro-portal to the afterlife. As the big brother hypothesizes, referring to measurable brain waves, “Our consciousness has a frequency, so where does all that energy go when we die?” He suspects that increasing the power feeding his invention might allow it to make their parents visible to the whole family, so he gets help from a neighbor, Tom (Robert B. Kennedy), who works for the local power utility. Then Tom starts to behave oddly, and we suspect Ethan’s device is more than just a ham radio that can talk to heaven.

Apart from some creepy-looking tendrils of black smoke that accompany the story’s early encounters, Our House does little in its first half to suggest that menace lurks ahead. And we’re well into the third act before the beats of Nathan Parker’s script start matching up to what we expect from a contemporary haunted-house flick. Arguably, the film’s hard turn into Scaresville taints what has made it appealing up to this point — and certainly, a tease in its final shot is a cheap gesture toward a possible sequel. But what comes before benefits from the cast’s solid familial chemistry and an unhurried approach to the question: Should we want to talk to loved ones who’ve died, or leave them (and ourselves) in peace?

Production companies: Prospero Pictures, Resolute Films, Senator Film Produktion
Distributor: IFC Midnight
Cast: Thomas Mann, Robert B. Kennedy, Kate Moyer, Percy Hynes White, Nicola Peltz
Director: Anthony Scott Burns
Screenwriter: Nathan Parker
Producers: Karen Wookey, Lee Kim, Martin Katz, Ulf Israel
Executive producers: Todd Brown, Derek Dauchy, John Davis
Director of photography: Nazgol Goshtasbpour
Costume designer: Anne Dixon
Editor: Erin Deck
Composer: Mark Korven
Casting director: Millie Tom
Venue: Fantasia International Film Festival

PG-13, 90 minutes

Review: ‘Our House’ Comes Equipped With More Than Wi-Fi

Just because a college student can violate the laws of physics doesn’t mean he should. Ethan, a brilliant scientist in the making, learns that lesson too late in “Our House,” an overly familiar but elegantly suspenseful throwback to the 1980s, when Steven Spielberg dominated as a director and producer. Ethan’s efforts to invent wireless electricity don’t do much to illuminate unplugged light bulbs, but they do conjure something extra-dimensional, and it’s probably not something good.

Ethan (Thomas Mann), has a motivation to open Pandora’s box. When his parents die in a car accident he abruptly halts his experimentation so he can work to support his siblings, Matt (Percy Hynes White) and Becca (Kate Moyer). Matt blames Ethan: Had Ethan not been away the night of the crash, the parents might not have been driving. The prospect of having them back, even spectrally, is tough to resist.

If Ethan, at first, seems blithely oblivious to conventional wisdom against playing God, the director, Anthony Scott Burns, is better at following rules. Self-consciously derivative, “Our House” comes furnished with a prominently placed poster for “The Fly,” characters who make references to “Back to the Future” and visual homages to “The Shining.”

But while Mr. Burns hasn’t fully digested his influences, he has learned from them. “Our House” distinguishes itself with its purposeful pacing — the first real jump scare arrives more than a third of the way through — its use of sound and crosscutting, and its wit with household objects, from a turntable to a  mechanical calendar.