House of the Dead (2003) Review

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House of the Dead (2003)

~Review by Grawlix (April 2018)

Score: D+

   It occurred to me after watching In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale that I should probably familiarize myself with more of Uwe Boll’s movies, partially because, for better or worse, they represent a measurable percentage of video game adaptations, and partially, if their reputation is anything to go by, to calibrate the bottom of my rating scale. House of the Dead was Boll’s first foray into video game adaptations, so this is where the legend begins. House of the Dead, the game, is certainly an interesting choice for adaptation because as an arcade light-gun rail-shooter it’s pretty plot-light even by video game standards. On one hand, this doesn’t leave much of a foundation for a screenplay to build on, but on the other, this could be an advantage as the blank slate of a plot could theoretically accommodate anything a writer wanted to include if they were up to the task. If.

   The movie begins by letting us know that virtually everyone is going to die so, uh, don’t get attached, I guess? No danger of that happening, honestly. We’re introduced to our five initial protagonists as they’re making their way to an isolated island for what’s supposed to be the rave of the year. The glimpses we’re given make it look more like a block party that could maybe get a little out of hand later, but never mind. Voiceover gives each character what’s intended to be an amusing foible, but regardless of what we’re told, they all seem to be the same sort of low-grade stupid that makes one figure the zombies we’ll be seeing later aren’t the type that are interested in brains. Our nominal heroes are running late and, having missed the main ferry, are forced to charter a fishing boat from its captain, Victor Kirk. Captain Kirk (sigh) is played by Jürgen Prochnow. Prochnow is by far the biggest name in the movie – the rest of the cast list reads like a late 90’s television call sheet – and I can only hope he owed Boll a favor or something because the former Der Alte and Duke Leto deserves far better than this.

   At length, our ersatz Scooby gang finds the rave site, ransacked and deserted. Two stay behind to serve as zombie appetizers while the rest find the survivors holed up in an old house. This swells the group to some dozen or so people, but we barely have time to catch their names. Upon learning there’s a boat at the harbor, everyone decides to make a break for it, but the zombies appear in force turning the attempted escape into a ragged death march. Then the harbor patrol shows up, in pursuit of Kirk who, it turns out, has a convenient side hustle as a gun runner.

   This leads to the action centerpiece of the film as everyone locks and loads for a mission back to the house in order to gain some defensible shelter. Giving these yahoos a bunch of guns seems like a dicey proposition at best, but the movie does its best to invoke the Rule of Cool so, suddenly, for the next couple of minutes, our motley band of imbeciles turns into Delta Force for the ensuing battle scene, mowing down wave after wave of zombies. Nearly everyone gets a moment, and some even have what would be dramatic deaths if the movie had bothered to develop their characters. It does look like the video game, after a fashion (even intercutting quick clips from the game when the movie seems to mirror them), but that’s sort of the problem. It looks like you’re watching someone else play the video game and, as anyone who’s wandered an arcade after spending their last quarter can tell you, simply watching someone else play (a light gun game, no less) gets old fast. To my eyes it seemed that Boll was desperately trying to remake the zombie battle from the first half of Ryuhei Kitamura’s Versus, but he simply doesn’t have the skill, and a few Matrix style camera moves do not a quality fight scene make. Eventually a few survivors make it into the house. There’s some standard zombie movie exposition, a guy with scars, a sword fight (because at this point, why not?) and, oh man, even a twist! And then, finally, mercifully, the credits.

   So, yeah, House of the Dead is pretty bad. The characters are one-dimensional if I’m being generous. There’s barely any plot at all; IMDB states the movie was meant to be a prequel to the game, but that frankly smacks of an ad hoc attempt at damage control, back from a far-off time when somebody, somewhere honestly believed that Uwe Boll had a reputation worth saving. Whoever wrote the dialog decided to namecheck a few other zombie movies, I guess as a self-aware attempt to inoculate against criticism that House of the Dead is ripping them off, but all this really manages to accomplish is highlight how good the movie isn’t. And the action, which comprises most of the film’s substance, is derivative and bland.

   But, see, maybe I’m going about this the wrong way, but I don’t think House of the Dead is worst-movie-ever-made bad. It’s generic and stale, and I honestly can’t believe that this is the best that someone who directed seven whole movies prior could do, but I still wouldn’t have batted an eye at its quality issues if had run on basic cable. It would just be another undistinguished genre time killer. To me the most confusing aspect of House of the Dead is that it somehow got a multimillion-dollar budget and a theatrical release. I guess I can see how the backlash would be amplified from someone who paid money to see this in a theater. But in a strange way, I can also almost understand Boll’s confusion when he refers to his movies and unrecognized masterpieces (or at least that they’re unfairly maligned). After all, acclaimed movies have action and conflict, this movie has action and conflict. Acclaimed movies have twists, this movie has a twist. But what House of the Dead most conspicuously lacks is style. Boll, as a director, has no voice; at best he merely mimics the voices of others. What do you do with an artist who somehow manages to not understand their art? Well, I’ll tell you what you don’t do: give them a multimillion-dollar budget and a theatrical release.

Final Score: D+

It doesn’t shift the paradigm for crap cinema, despite its best efforts, but being that there are countless better options for either zombie or video game movies, there’s really no reason to recommend it.


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