Early in “House in the Alley,” which is being described as the first Vietnamese horror movie, one of the main characters innocently touches an axe. In a wilier film, such a moment might be a wink at slasher-flick predictability. But there’s nothing sly about writer-director Le-Van Kiet’s scenario. Ultimately, that character will use that axe just as any veteran horror watcher would expect.
Made in Ho Chi Minh City by the Vietnam-born, California-raised Kiet, “House in the Alley” evocatively depicts a land of warm nights, milky sunlight and sudden rains. There are scenes in the movie’s relatively quiet middle section that recall the gentle films of the great Franco-Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung. But this story begins and ends with bloodbaths.
The first one is not supernatural. In the gory opening sequence, a midwife rushes to attend Thao (Thanh Van Ngo), who’s suffering childbirth agonies the older woman says are the worst she’s even seen. The baby is stillborn.
Months later, Thao divides her time between brooding and sleeping. Her loyal husband, Thanh (Son Bao Tran), often stays home from work to look after her, despite his mother’s protests. Mom doesn’t like Thao very much and is unsympathetic to her depression. Also, Thanh’s family runs a factory that’s in crisis, and Mom would rather lose a daughter-in-law than the business.
The couple’s upscale but poorly maintained home has a weird aura, and gradually the spookiness becomes manifest. Indeed, the house seems to be a magnet for creepshow cliches, from unexplainable thumps to eerie laughter. There’s even a recurring role for a black cat.
The haunting could be attributed to Thao’s refusal to bury the baby, whose casket remains in the couple’s bedroom. Or the ghosts might be attached to the house itself, and are tormenting Thao and Thanh for things that happened before they moved in. It hardly matters. Either way, they lose.
Thanh takes the brunt of the abuse. His attempts to solve the mystery lead to repeated physical injuries, verging on slapstick. The guy falls off roofs and balconies so often that you’d think he’d go looking for a ranch house in the ’burbs.
Nicely photographed by Joel Spezeski, the movie makes much of Thanh Van Ngo, a Vietnamese action star with supermodel looks. She’s partially undressed on several occasions, but never for anything more revealing than a Victoria’s Secret ad. (The Socialist Republic of Vietnam is a conservative place.)
So whatever the couple is being punished for, it’s not excessive sexiness. In fact, American viewers accustomed to more lurid fare may come to suspect that ghosts and demons decided to torment Thao and Thanh simply for being kind of dull.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.
Unrated. At AMC Hoffman. Contains creepiness, bloody violence and alcohol use. In Vietnamese with subtitles. 95 minutes.