The Strange House/The Scary House is proof that Austrian cinema deserves attention, even if one doesn’t consider famous directors like Michael Haneke or Jessica Hausner. It is also proof that Netflix hides its international content well and that it’s sometimes worth your time to just type in a language name in the search bar in order to find interesting movies from around the world. A tween mystery/horror set in a small town in the south of Austria, the film might seem derivative at first (it has the same premise as Joe Dante’s ‘The Hole‘, bearing similarities to ‘It: Chapter One‘, ‘Super 8‘, ‘Stranger Things‘ and ‘Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase‘), but it becomes a winning combination of stylish cinematography, great characters and a smart plot.
Based on a children’s book by Martina Wildner, the plot concerns a mother, Sabine, and two sons, Hendrik and Eddi, who relocate from Germany to Eisenkappel (most likely Eisenkappel-Vellach, a market town close to the Slovenian border), and find themselves living in the titular house, one previously owned by Amalia Polzmann, a Slovene woman who – according to urban legend – murdered her two young sons and then committed suicide. It is common knowledge that the house is haunted, and when Eddi starts to write the word ‘Gobe’ (Slovenian for ‘mushroom’) on a wall at night while sleepwalking, his older brother seeks the help of two local kids, Ida and Fritz, and together they try to solve the mystery surrounding the Polzmann murders.
While slugs and snails seem to be recurring visual motifs, the themes of long-buried secrets, teenage angst and single-parent struggles are well-illustrated in The Strange House, but the most important one is clearly how children of different backgrounds manage to bond and team up, standing up to bullies and overcoming ethnic tensions. Starting off with an extended intro comprised of trippy visuals and a synthwave score which can compete with this year’s ‘Come True‘ soundtrack, House impresses from the very first seconds and benefits from inspired cinematography. However, it might seem like it borrows a bit too much – there is dense fog just like in ‘Der Samurai‘, a séance scene which might remind people of ‘The Watcher in the Woods‘ (but shot to look more like the recent ‘Annabelle‘ movies), Ida riding a bike at night just like in ‘Stranger Things‘, the yellow jackets reminiscing the ‘Dark‘ German series, and so on. All of these homages are there in plain-sight: no scene is poorly-lit, the color grading makes every character and important item stand out – just like in a hidden object game – and the use of filters might even recall classic Goosebumps episodes (like ‘Stay Out of the Basement‘).
Ultimately, the film does rise above mere imitation, with a great plot and especially two very likeable characters, managing to hit all the right notes in a coming-of-age/mystery-horror blend which other filmmakers (Francois Simard and Anouk Whissell in ‘Summer of ’84‘, for starters) have attempted unsuccessfully before. This is mostly because of Ida and Fritz, two outsiders who bring a distinct, oddball charm and are much more interesting that the brothers themselves. Ida is – because of the film being a male narrative – the love interest, but she’s also the Nancy Drew of the crew, a girl who can think on her feet, and a great user of Visible Silence (the movie completely nails the right tone between wide-eyed amazement and goofball comedy). She can also translate from German to Slovenian and back, so she’s actually the one who has to be there in every scene once the mystery plot gets going.
On the other hand, Fritz is the uber-nerd (‘nerd culture’ might be practically over, but the bespectacled, fiercely intelligent, scientifically-minded boy or girl who is afraid of germs and social interaction will never go away, especially from ’80s homages), basically a walking encyclopedia who can think outside the box. So, naturally, the film is at its best when these two get to interact – a rare sight in ANY movie – and actually solve things. Hendrik is too busy sulking and, later, being possessed or rushing head-first into danger, and Eddi isn’t in the movie too much to matter. A scene in which Ida has to distract a possessed Hendrik while Fritz struggles to find a solution to stop him is a highlight of the movie – so is another in which the two manage to work as a team separately: Fritz coming up with a brilliant idea at a party, while Ida uses more direct means of investigation. The two come off as a great team even when separated with no idea of what the other is doing, as the ending scene demonstrates.
It all adds up to an oddly effective and thrilling movie, which might feel a bit like reading an old-school Nancy Drew novel (without any of the problematic aspects), or a Hardy Boys one, or even better: A Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys team-up (the current Nancy Drew CW tv show might be a source of joy, if one spots the similarities – although it is focused on older teens, the supernatural horror and the ‘Nancy who grew up’ premise in a modern setting ensure that it stands out in a crowded market). It might also seem like a great Scooby-Doo movie without Scooby, especially if you consider Ida to be an extremely competent Daphne (like she was in the two Brian Levant live-action movies, ‘The Mystery Begins‘ and ‘Curse of the Lake Monster‘, portrayed by Kate Melton – not like in the 2018 ‘Daphne and Velma‘ one-off), and Fritz the obvious Velma (again, more similar to Hailey Kiyoko’s take on the character than Linda Cardellini’s). Another apt comparison might be ‘The Goonies‘, but with ghosts instead of pirates.
Ultimately, benefitting from a smart script which eschews all possible violence, but ups the danger and tension, the movie is one that fans of kids’ horror-mysteries should absolutely check out. It doesn’t manage to find a set-piece as impressive as the amusement park from ‘The Hole’, although the cave scenes come pretty close. It moves from place to place with grace and wit – the only downside is the occasional bad ghost make-up, but that doesn’t take one out of the carefully-crafted atmosphere at all. The true joy comes from spotting the many, many ’80s movies references and seeing the kids interact – if Netflix doesn’t make a sequel soon, there are other German teen movies to consider, like ‘Mara and the Firebringer‘, ‘How To Be Really Bad‘, or – if we’re talking English – the recent ‘Nightbooks‘, or the more serious ‘The Water Man‘.
The Strange House is available to stream on Netflix.