October is the month for horror! And once the calendar rolls from September 30th to October 1st VODs and On-Demand services are often awash in low-budget horror, but are any of them truly worth your time? The Inhabitants is one such film, and there is much to praise in a film that hearkens back to atmospheric films like Let's Scare Jessica to Death or, its closest influence, Ti West's House of the Devil or The Innkeepers. The air of foreboding is present, elevated by surprisingly well-done performances from its two leads, but I wanted the script to go big or go home. Hinting at well-worn horror tropes involving gender and pregnancy, the script contemplates flipping the script before righting itself and going by the numbers.
Jessica and Dan (Elise Couture and Michael Reed) have recently purchased The March Carriage, the oldest house in New England, in the hopes of returning it to its bed and breakfast splendor. Left alone to fix it up, Jessica ends up encountering ghostly inhabitants leading Dan to question what's happened to his wife.
Written and directed by brothers Michael and Shawn Rassmussen, The Inhabitants certainly owes a debt to classic horror. You'll find allusions to the likes of Burnt Offerings, Rosemary's Baby, and The Uninvited, as well as more contemporary horror films like the Paranormal Activity series, VHS, and the aforementioned work of Ti West. West's fingerprints feel most evident. As a big fan of House of the Devil, watching Jessica carry out her chores in the house is creepy on its own. Anyone who's spent time alone in a new dwelling recalls that sense of dread complicated by isolation. The New England setting provides built in history and mythology, all of which leads to some tense moments where nothing happens, and that's actually more effective than the manufactured scares.
The script doesn't seek to bog us down with exposition, but the third act almost demands us. The first half of the film's 90-minutes is an effective "old, dark house" story with Jessica finding odd things here and there as shadows stand behind her or doors mysteriously open. Despite this being low-budget, the script creates through constraints, making things creepier because there's little to see. It, again, goes back to West and House of the Devil. The fact that the character is unfamiliar with what's normal, makes things more disturbing in their unfamiliarity. The addition of a bizarre history and the former tenant aimlessly wandering into the house also helps. However, the third act falls into the typical presentation of dead-eyed children and screaming ladies that don't fit into the house or its history, mostly due to the limited makeup effects. This is one horror film where more hurts. Because of the lack of exposition, or because the backstory we're given has changed, I'm unsure which, we're left with a finale that's more confusing than satisfying.
The Rassmussen brothers certainly seem to enjoy writing films about women. Although their last film, The Ward, didn't get much love, the abundance of female characters is certainly worth praising in a horror landscape where women are too often victims. Leading lady Elise Couture turns in a very intriguing performance, and that's before the rote "possession" in the third act. Courture's expressive, reacting to her new situation realistically; her dialogue readings sound natural without coming off as wooden. In fact, the acting here is very well done all around, particularly in the relationship dynamics between Couture and Reed.The film allows them to be cute and playful, without any of it feeling forced.
The only true backstory we're given is Jessica unpacking an ultrasound photo, the couple obviously dealing with a miscarriage. This moment isn't played maudlin, and Jessica never bemoans her lot in life, even once the plot brings in shades of It's Alive. It's presented as a moment in life that's shaped her, and she's learning to move forward.
In fact, much of The Inhabitants plays out with the horror as a stand-in for undiscussed issues in the couple's marriage, post losing their child. And it gives the screenwriters a new landscape to change things up, which frustrates when elements become rote. For instance, there's a fun gender-swapped love scene that sets it upself with Dan as the potential victim in an impregnation moment ripped out of Rosemary's Baby. I would have been very interested in seeing a man confused about what's going in an "This is really happening" moment, albeit one not played for laughs like This Is the End. Instead, there's little discussion about it and the sex happens.
The script also yanks us away from Jessica's perspective post-possession, leaving us to watch Dan question what's happened to his wife. Not only does this take us away from Couture's dominating presence, but it prevents us from further bonding and deciding whether we empathize with a character who's changed. The Rassmussen's are obviously intrigued by women in horror, so they shouldn't be afraid to go further.
With that all being said, this is a bit of a win for low-budget horror. Too often the seams of a budget show, whether through hollow sound or stilted acting. As I've already detailed, the film looks good, particularly because of its one location. The old house of New England are both beautiful and haunting, and it's great the film keeps us confined, much like Jessica. The actors are all authentic without being overly polished nor without sounding like amateurs. I'd be intrigued watching the Rassmussen's get a bigger budget because they seem to know how to parcel out the story and find great, untried actors.
The Inhabitants sets up a great nostalgic throwback, but it never goes far enough. It also fails to go far enough in setting itself apart from other horror films despite opening the door to some great gender swaps in the horror field. Couture, Reed, and the rest of the cast are very good; I'm excited to see where Couture goes from here because she's as talented as she is beautiful. The Rassmussen's have the tools, they just need to be unafraid to tread into deeper waters.