"There are a lot of things I'd like to do with you that I know you wouldn't like ..."

HOUSE ON THE HILL is a 2012 film based on the real-life crimes of American serial killer Leonard Lake and, to a lesser extent, his accomplice Charles Ng.

From the offset, what's intriguing about the low budget effort is that it fuses recreations of crimes with actual, genuine videotaped monologues from Lake himself. It makes for a morbidly fascinating mix of fact and fiction.

The gist is this: Lake acquired a remote cabin in the mountains of California in the early 80s and, having met Ng in the US Marine Corps as young men, invited the new pal to it. Lake had custom-built a dungeon onto the side of the cabin, for the express purpose of "imprisoning" and "enslaving" the type of women who wouldn't normally look at him. Ng was complicit in the numerous kidnappings, rapes and murders that were committed there over the next year or so.

Director Jeff Frentzen's film employs amazingly frank onscreen quotes from Lake, proudly detailing his plans on ropy old VHS as if they were as natural as buying a new car. Interspersed with these, and increasingly dominating the running time, are chronological episodes that strive to recreate key murders from this case. Names of victims and dates of their disappearances act almost as chapter headings, with the ensuing action being clear low budget fabrications of what most likely occurred within Lake's dreaded dungeon walls.

The first vignette is dedicated to victims Sonia (Naidra Dawn Thomson) and Karianna (Shannon Leade). Both are abducted and driven to the remote California hills setting, where Lake (Stephen AF Day) and Ng (Sam Leung) explain what they want: the girls' bank details, and 30 days of "washing, cooking, cleaning and fucking". So ... they just want their money, their dignity and their bodies. Hmm. The deal is the girls play ball, or get taken out of their custom-made prison and shot in the head.

Begrudgingly, the girls comply with the guys' calmly delivered demands.

They're clearly successful at fulfilling their captors' needs: they're kept around to film the tribulations of next victim Jennifer (Crystal Nelson). She makes the mistake of trying to escape from her new prison. Bad move, girl: she learns the hard way, she shouldn't have tried to run.

Lake and Ng's capacity for brutality established, we follow Sonia and Karianna's hardships further as they survive as slaves through more killings. Crucially (though, to the detriment of the film thanks to the woeful acting of Kevin McCloskey as a present-day detective) one surviving character is interviewed - fictionally, of course - in a bid to give the girls' endurances more credibility.

And so, HOUSE ON THE HILL unfurls episodically with more and more scenes of females being abused. Ng and Lake rob their captives of both their bank balances and their bodies in unremittingly grim scenes of misery and suffering.

Performances are generally very good and the violence manages to concern without ever being overtly graphic. The occasional cut to footage from the real Lake simply serves to remind us now and then that everything we're seeing happened, more or less, for real.

If only Frentzen had excised the ill-advised monochrome present day re-enactments, this all could've played out even better.

The violence is casual (Lake and Ng chatting over beers as they watch a stabbed victim gasping for breath, for example) and often seems brutal as a result, despite - as mentioned above - a lack of explicit bloodletting. Elongated suffering seems to be the order of the day, complemented by low synth sounds which aim to capture the chaos of the dying brain. Unfortunately Day uses one of those joke shop knives with a retractable blade during a few kill scenes, and it's really obvious that that's what it is. It robs such scenes of the impact they otherwise would've undoubtedly possessed.

The only other bum note in an otherwise unexpectedly competent no-budget flick is the library music used in snippets in-between Jonah Kraut and Robert J Walsh's atmospheric score. It adds unintentional melodrama to otherwise matter-of-fact horror.

HOUSE ON THE HILL is presented uncut here, in its original 1.78:1 anamorphic ratio. It looks good for the most part, with bright, colourful imagery and pleasing detail during close-up moments. There are moments where the footage looks a little sun-bleached, and obviously the archive VHS clips of the real Lake appear soft and blurry. But generally speaking, the film looks good. Certainly, the variations in visual quality are nothing to do with this disc's authoring.

English 2.0 audio is reliable throughout.

MVD Visual's region-free DVD opens to a pin-sharp animated main menu page. Although there is no scene selection option, a quick perusal of the remote control handset does reveal that the film is equipped with no less than 30 chapters.

The only extra feature on offer is the film's original 80-second trailer. This is honest as to the lo-fi look of the feature and its merging of documentary footage with newly created shock scenes.

HOUSE ON THE HILL is an unusual, quietly compelling little film and it's given a solid DVD release here from MVD Visual.

Review by Stuart Willis

Released by MVD Visual
Region All
Not Rated
Extras :
see main review