By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Jimmi Simpson, Julianna Guill and Nancy Linehan Charles
Directed by James Roday
Written by James Roday and Todd Harthan
After the previous installment of Blumhouse Television and Hulu’s INTO THE DARK, the twisted Valentine’s Day tale DOWN (reviewed here), only touched on the topical considerations of its male-on-female-victimization plot, the latest entry takes #MeToo-era redress as its subject. However, TREEHOUSE—which stretches the series’ holiday connection to tie in to the Ides of March—takes a while to get to that place, and doesn’t quite know how to handle those themes when it arrives.
The script by James Roday, who also directed, and Todd Harthan centers on Peter Rake (Jimmi Simpson)—though the fact that this will become a feminine-centered story is signaled by Simpson getting credits billing below three of his female co-stars. Peter is a celebrity chef who hosts a HELL’S KITCHEN/KITCHEN NIGHTMARES-type show, and maintains an air of superiority over all around him, particularly women. On a weekend when his ex-wife is remarrying, and while his handlers attempt damage control over a vaguely defined, about-to-break Internet scandal, he heads up for a getaway at a family mansion in the mountains.
At first, the only other person there is ominous housekeeper Agnes (Nancy Linehan Charles), and then Peter’s estranged sister Gwen (Amanda Walsh), who’s now a DA, turns up for a visit. Very little that’s scary occurs for the first half hour or so, other than brief shots of a bloody toilet and a black goat outside (anticipating the viewer’s response, Peter calls it “Black Phillip”). Instead, we get a good handle on Peter’s character, and Simpson is right on as this wisecracking fast-talker, given snappy dialogue by Roday and Harthan.
The trouble is, the filmmakers don’t properly set Peter up for what happens to him in TREEHOUSE’s second half, after he makes the acquaintance of Kara (Julianna Guill, who along with Simpson was also an executive producer here). She and a group of friends are having a bachelorette party somewhere nearby, or so they say, and Peter invites them all over for a dinner he prepares. As the night goes on, he also feeds them a lot of insulting, condescending lines, before he starts feeling woozy and… No fair revealing the details of what happens to him next, but suffice to say he faces a long night of reckoning for his past misdeeds.
TREEHOUSE (the title refers to a structure in the woods behind the mansion, which resembles a fairy-tale cottage and where Peter once did something bad) might have landed stronger if Peter was established as the complete bastard we later learn he is. During the long setup, there’s a sense of holding back on making him out as a villain: He’s mean to the amateur chefs on his show, though the abuse we see isn’t as awful as what we’re used to from Gordon Ramsay et al. He’s neglectful of Riley (Kylie Rogers), his tween daughter from his first marriage, but the way their scenes are played, it’s evident he does care for her. And though his attitudes toward women suck, his true crimes against them—the ones justifying his comeuppance—are kept on the periphery for quite a while, only revealed in detail once Peter is in the thick of his predicament.
The details of how the women give Peter what’s coming to him are a vaguely clever conceit, though it also counterproductively casts them as monsters rather then sympathetic avengers. Letting us in on their plot from the start would have secured the viewer on their side early on, and Roday sacrifices that for a would-be gotcha moment at the end, and only a couple of the women are given much in the way of dimension to their characters. Roday, the actor-turned-filmmaker whose last feature at the helm was the obnoxious GRAVY, has thankfully taken the tone down a few notches here, yet with that comes a distance from a scenario that should have been good, juicy horror/melodrama. Giving us more reasons to hate Peter would have earned TREEHOUSE a little more love.