OIFF Review: 'Girlhouse'

(Canada, 99 min.)
Dir. Trevor Matthews, John Knautz; Writ. Nick Gordon
Starring: Ali Corbin, Adam DiMarco, Erin Agostino, Chasty Ballesteros, Alyson Bath, Alice Hunter, Slaine.
Sexy coeds get porked and butchered in the local slasher Girlhouse and the result is pretty nasty. Girlhouse, which had its world premiere as the opening night selection of the 2014 Ottawa International Film Festival to an energetic and decently-sized crowd at the Mayfair Theatre, certainly marks one of the most professionally assembled and commercially viable genre flicks to emerge from the local film scene. A heaping dose of sex and violence makes this diversionary gore-fest a prime contender for the Netflix queue, although audiences outside of the local film scene might not be as forgiving of the clichés and overall derivativeness of the film. Still, Ottawa audiences should appreciate the technical efforts of their peers while teen target demos could bring some interest akin to the locally shot moneymaker House at the End of the Street.

Girlhouse lives up to its advertisement as a Halloween for the digital age when buxom girl-next-door Kylie (Ali Corbin) ships out of her dorm room and shacks up with some smut peddlers to fund her college education. “It’s porn,” her friend Liz (Erin Agostino) protests after she and Kylie try and awkward web cam chat session to get Kylie in the groove for flashing her, as Liz so eloquently puts it, “vertical lady smile” for the masturbating masses.

Kylie enters Girlhouse and meets her roster of perky housemates, who do pretty much everything on camera (usually naked) to make a buck. They’ll even take a poop “Big Brother”-style because, as one girl says, “It pays well.” These girls are gorgeous, but… ick.

Directors Trevor Matthews and John Knautz take the POV killer cam into PornHub territory and make an exploitation flick about the 24/7 porn addiction that plagues laptops of Don Jon-types everywhere. Girlhouse makes an early bid to comment on porn’s ability to manipulate the mind after the Internet-porn-laden opening credits with an epigraph that observes how men with a penchant for violence often have a fondness for pornography. The ensuing frame introduces a young boy who commits a violent act after two girls tease him and shame his manliness. Cut to twenty years later and this violent man, now dubbed “Loverboy,” happens to be one of Girlhouse’s best customers. Loverboy (played by The Town’s Slaine) takes a shine to Kylie during her inaugural striptease. Girlhouse user deems Kylie’s first show too wholesome (“We didn’t pay for shoulders,” he writes), but Loverboy develops a fixation on her that inevitably leads to a messy bloodbath.

Girlhouse mostly stumbles in its awkward attempt to make a statement about female empowerment through the pornographic premise that turns these young women into victims. Kylie extols the virtues of porn, telling her new boyfriend, Ben (Adam DiMarco), that porn is more progressively accepted these days. Kylie and all the girls of Girlhouse still act as pure sex objects, though, for there’s nothing to these characters but their bodies and their victimization.

Kylie says that porn is empowering, yet it brings the downfall of the girls and everyone associated with Girlhouse when Loverboy’s messed-up pornographic fantasy incites him to go all Michael Myers on the vixens of the World Wide Web. There is something inherently powerful about owning and celebrating one’s body, but Girlhouse doesn’t really surpass the usual tropes of titillation and exploitation that characterize most tits-and-ass slasher flicks. One girl even commits suicide during the bloodbath because she doesn’t see the point in living if she isn’t beautiful. Aside from Liz, every female character in Girlhouse is a porn star/”online model” or a bitchy cock-tease who fuels Loverboy’s hate for women.

It doesn’t help, either, that every male character is a masturbating creeper. Even Ben, who accepts Kylie’s profession, finally gets the urge to make a move on Kylie after knowing her for twenty-odd years when he sees her drop her skirt on Girlhouse. His roommate, an avid visitor of the site under the moniker “Tugboat” (the clever user names are easily the highlight of the script), advises him that all girls like Kylie must be easy lays.

The satire and social commentary are simply too contradictory and all over the map for Girlhouse to legitimize its purpose in dabbling in an excess of sex, violence, and clichés. The violence itself is too unintentionally funny to shock or provoke, especially one ridiculous sequence that might bring cinema’s first graphic depiction of death by asphyxiation on a dildo. Ditto a bit involving some stumpy fingers of one poor victim and her attempt to type with her nose as she cries for help to everyone watching the Luka Magnotta-ish online horror show.

Matthews and Knautz find more success in giving nods to horror films as Girlhouse outfits Loverboy in a bizarre costume that looks like Michael Myers crossbred with Leatherface in drag. A nice nudge to The Shining also carpets the sexpad as a regular madhouse, while horror fans will undoubtedly recognize intersections with Videodrome, feardotcom, and other genre films. It’s a stylish thriller, as Matthews, Knautz, and their team assemble a slick production with atmospheric cinematography by Chris Norr and brisk editing by Matthew Brulotte, the latter of which salvages a few legit scares.

The stylishness and cinephilia of Girlhouse combines with the film’s awkward female empowerment angle in a climactic scene that pays homage to The Silence on the Lambs. This scene brings the Final Girl showdown to the basement, just like when Clarice hunts for Buffalo Bill, except that Girlhouse reverses the gaze of the killer cam, so instead of seeing Jodie Forster feel her way through the dark, Kylie gets the advantage of a night vision filter to beat the bad guy. It’s the only scene in which Girlhouse convincingly empowers its heroine. Foster's Clarice Starling, however, is one of hallmarks of the genre (if not the peak), so Girlhouse equally muddles its efforts by giving a nod to a much stronger film with a much stronger female protagonist. It’s a great scene in its own right regardless, if only for the sense that it’s the one moment in which Girlhouse comes together.

Rating: ★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

Girlhouse screened at OIFF on Thursday, Oct. 16.

Girlhouse was preceded by:

The Garage
(Canada, 7 min.)
Dir. Patrick White, Writ. John Ainslie, Patrick White
Starring: Krista Morin, Robert Reynolds, Sean Tucker, Jeff Lawson.
Remember that "Seinfeld" episode where the gang gets lost in a parking garage? Pretty frustrating, eh? Imagine, though, that a car simply vanished. One minute it’s there and then—poof!—it’s gone.

That scenario is the gist of what happens to a woman (Krista Morin) in The Garage, a local sci-fi short about parallel realities. The film offers some unexpected twists as the woman and the garage security guard (Robert Reynolds) investigate the disappearance of her car and find that the cameras of the garage act as doors between different worlds. The film’s play with technology is smart and intriguing, and makes the film a good (if superior) partner for Girlhouse. This stylish short offers some trippy thrills and existential musing as director Patrick White and cinematography Adrian Langley present the layers of the parking garage as a dark, menacing underworld. The abrupt, open ending leaves audiences in suspense.

Rating: ★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)


What did you think of Girlhouse and The Garage?



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