By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Cody Longo, Cortney Palm and Kane Hodder
Written and directed by B. Harrison Smith
The come-on for DEATH HOUSE is that it’s “THE EXPENDABLES of horror,” gathering a convention’s worth of genre celebrities in one movie. What those pushing the comparison have evidently forgotten is that THE EXPENDABLES was pretty lousy, though at least it had a discernable budget. Certain cameos in DEATH HOUSE look like they went up to the celeb’s convention hotel room, shot them in front of a greenscreen and later dropped them into the movie via cheap digital effects.
Many of the star appearances in DEATH HOUSE, in fact, amount to little more than cameos, starting with Tony Todd. His opening scene has not much to do with anything before we’re taken to the titular facility, where a rogue’s gallery of murderers and fiends have been confined for study. This is supposed to be a super-hi-tech lab (whose layout, as seen in a brief computer simulation, looks very much like that of RESIDENT EVIL’s Umbrella Corporation)—though after early scenes set in white-and-shiny rooms, the last half plays out amidst grubby, crumbling prison hallways.
It is here that FBI agents Jae Novak (Cody Longo) and Toria Boon (ZOMBEAVERS’ Cortney Palm) arrive for a tour. If those names seem a little improbable, those of some of the villains are even more contrived; Kane Hodder, for example, plays neo-Nazi Alais Sieg, the kind of moniker that has you mentally rearranging the letters to see if it’s an anagram for something. Anyhow, Novak and Boon are shown around by Drs. Fletcher and Redmane, played by Dee Wallace and Barbara Crampton, two actresses who are far better than their ploddingly expository dialogue and are subjected to harsh overlighting in those lab sequences.
After our two leads share the most boring shower scene in horror-film history, an EMP-pulse device is sneaked into Death House in the guts of a mutilated guard. When it goes off and kills the power, the inmates are freed to run riot through the place, Novak and Boon try to find a way out and it all leads to Death House’s dreaded ninth level. That’s the dwelling place of the worst of the worst, a group known as the “Five Evils”—i.e. Bill Moseley, Michael Berryman and others standing around in supervillain cosplay outfits, looking vaguely embarrassed.
Among the many, many problems with DEATH HOUSE is that writer/director B. Harrison Smith plays his ridiculous storyline completely straight and serious, and has guided his cast to do the same. You’d think that someone making what is essentially the ultimate fan film would have some fun with the opportunity, but instead the script consists largely of endless pseudoscientific mumbo jumbo and tedious ruminations on the nature of good and evil and God and humanity and stuff. Smith’s “vision” also way overreached his budget, and thus Novak and Boon don VR headsets held together with duct tape, and the CGI is beneath the level of what your average high-schooler could do on his or her laptop.
Every so often, as when Sieg confronts another villain played by R.A. Mihailoff, DEATH HOUSE feels like a real movie. For the most part, though, there’s a thrown-together feel to the whole thing, and with the exception of a room full of HELLRAISER-inspired ghouls, the horror content consists largely of poorly shot action that is sometimes so underlit that you can’t tell what’s going on. There’s also an unfortunate emphasis on the brutalization of women and the baring of their breasts for cheap titillation; not once but twice, a female victim actually asks her attacker if she’s going to be raped and murdered.
The worst part of DEATH HOUSE, though, is the way it squanders the opportunity to gather so many fright favorites in one place. When the late Gunnar Hansen, who receives story credit and turns up briefly as a hologram, first conceived the project, surely he didn’t envision a movie in which so many of these actors would be reduced to pointless walk-ons. DEATH HOUSE’s only value is as a game of Spot-the-Celebrity—which at least provides a distraction from the tackiness of the plotting and filmmaking. And it’s a shame that a great tagline—“Hell isn’t a word… It’s a sentence”—has been wasted on a flick that does indeed feel like a prison term.