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House of Many Sorrows

2020, Starring John Garofalo II, Ginger Lynn, Samantha Brownlee, Tom Malloy, Betty Maxwell. Directed by Barry J. Gillis (Exosphere Pictures).

While Canadian director Barry J. Gillis will likely always be associated with his Super 8 Toronto-shot brainmelter Things (1989), the excitable filmmaker's more recent work suggests that he's intent on pushing beyond that early exercise with more a series of increasingly more mature films. With House of Many Sorrows, Gillis' third film (and his first in eight years), he brings in more experienced actors and serious themes--in this case, the impending death of a family member--and takes a more measured approach to dealing out violence and bloodshed. An interesting expansion of Gillis' filmography, House of Many Sorrows manages to cling to the director's usual individualistic approach, an often (but not always) sardonic effort that continually blurs the line between fiction and fact as it builds to a violent final reel.

Gillis is the first to admit that House of Many Sorrows is more of a slow burn than his other works, which is true--the film seems to take inspiration from Psycho (1960) as it focuses on the progressive mental breakdown of the main character who rents rooms for a living and really appreciates the privacy afforded by a good bathroom. Arthur (John Garofalo II) is a disturbed individual who lives with his mother (Betty Maxwell) in the out-of-the-way bed and breakfast that she owns. Problem is, poor old mom's dying, and Arthur's having a hard time dealing with it all, as he takes over duties booking in the odd guest and considers whether he should sell the property. Arnold hires nursing student Loni (Samantha Brownlee) to take care of his ailing mom while he spends most of his time lounging in his pajamas, watching horror films and news reports. But it isn't long before he starts to lose his grip on reality, doing away with the B&B's female guests (including former adult star Ginger Lynn) and even considering attacking his mother. When a stranded couple, Mack and Janet (Tom Malloy and Nella Virga), show up after being stranded nearby with a flat tire, Arthur finally snaps and begins an upsetting spree of murder and torture.

As with Gillis' past films, House of Many Sorrows presents a largely cynical world view that can be traced all the way back through to Wicked World and that film's deranged serial killer, Harold. Arthur's slow mental breakdown is seemingly brought on by his mother's impending death and accelerated by the obsessive viewing of horror films (including Gillis' The Killing Games, natch) and news programs covering local violent crimes (presented by Kim Sønderholm, in a cameo). Sitting in a comfy chair, Arthur's viewings of Phantom of the Opera (1925) and a trailer for the Johnny Cash-starring thriller Five Minutes to Live (1961) on a TV screen eventually bleed into reality as Arnold suddenly appears on the same screen heimself, committing his own atrocities against certain guests. One scene even has him romancing Loni, even though he's just finished tying her up outside to a post, suggesting Arnold's growing confusion about the reality of the movies he watches, or even possibly that he equates his own acts with the cinematic killings that he can't seem to stop watching.

Anger about the violence in society and how it can inspire more brutal acts is a theme that reoccurs in many of Gillis' films. What's interesting about the way this film deals with the issue is the way it's complicated by additional voyeuristic layering. Gillis often includes clips from his past works in new projects, but they find a new purpose here--as viewers, we watch a fictional film about a man driven to violence by watching other fictional films about violence. It's an approach that implicates the viewer right up to the film's controversial "aborted" ending--a decision that may frustrate some, but still makes sense considering that the viewer, like Arnold, can well imagine the conclusion of any scene of extreme bloodshed--especially if they are as equally familiar with horror films.

Fans of Gillis' cinematic quirks will also find plenty to enjoy in the film, particularly in one startling scene where Arnold bursts into his still-alive mother's room with a shovel and starts ranting about digging a grave for her. Former adult star Ginger Lynn Allen is also wildly over-the-top as a sexed-up guest who barges through a handful of scenes before meeting her fate while lounging in the bathtub (a far meatier--and fleshier--cameo than was given to Amber Lynn in Things). There are even some direct attempts at humour, which seems like new territory for Gillis--Arthur repeatedly stares into his closet that inexplicably has three pairs of the same maroon shirt/pajama pant combination, and later tricks some door-to-door singing missionaries (one played by Gillis himself) into reading a dirty quote from the bible, sending them off in an annoyed huff while Arnold's tied-up victims scream for help from just beyond earshot.

Like Things, House of Many Sorrows largely takes place within a single indoor location, and while the house doesn't play much of a direct role in the proceedings, Gillis is able to use the claustrophobic sets to help intensify the situation, and further highlight Arnold's isolation from everyone but the blinking TV screen that unspools violence and atrocities straight into his brain. Though the character's downward spiral probably comes off a little more arbitrary than it should, it's a more nuanced characterization than in his earlier films--past characters like Wicked World's Harold and The Killing Games' Dirty Jesus were already fully formed incarnations of evil. Arnold? Well, he's still working on it.

Perhaps that's why House of Many Sorrows registers not only as a horror film, but also a tragedy, as its title implies. Arnold spends much of the early part of the film contending with emotions during the torturously slow but inevitable death of his mother, and there's a painful element to his breakdown into violence by the end of the film. And while we've already seen Gillis cast a cynical eye on everyday brutality, there's a hint of understanding and pity here that brings not only offers some further depth to this film, but also tends to reflect well on Gillis' other works that have come before it.

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