Movie Review: ‘Treehouse’

You will often find hear people complain that horror movies over-rely on jump scares and gore. These techniques are seen as “cheap,” an easy shortcut to producing an audience reaction. “Good” horror movies, these people will tell you, create suspense, ratcheting up the tension until the audience can barely breathe and then ratcheting it up a little more, and only then releasing it all in the film’s final moments. I don’t buy this argument, and Treehouse is a prime example why.

There is no doubt that the horror genre generally overuses jump scares and gore. And there is also no denying that a truly suspenseful horror movie with neither of those things can be a wonderful thing. But to stigmatize gore and jump scares—in many ways the fundamental elements of low-budget horror—as cheating is to ask for a horror landscape in which we see a lot more low-budget horror movies that attempt to develop suspense through story, atmosphere, characters, and all the rest. Maybe this is a noble goal. But when a slasher movie fails, you’re left with some gore; when a monster movie fails, you’re left with a monster; but when an attempt at horror-suspense fails—as it most certainly does with Treehouse—you’re left with nothing.

Treehouse tells a very simple story extremely slowly. Elizabeth (Dana Melanie) comes home to find her house ransacked and her little brother missing. She chases a shadowy figure into the woods. This causes a local festival to be canceled, so brothers Killian (J. Michael Trautmann) and Crawford (Daniel Fredrick) head out to the woods to shoot off fireworks. They find an old treehouse and, upon entering, see Elizabeth, bloodied and frightened. Crawford leaves to find help, while Crawford and Elizabeth stay behind in the treehouse as the mysterious attackers haunt the night.

This is not the most promising material anyway, but it’s made much worse by director Michael Bartlett’s excruciatingly slow pacing. This movie is slooooooow. Every scene last several beats too long. Even the opening credits seem drawn-out. There is just not enough here—in terms of story, character, atmosphere, scares, gore, anything—to justify the film’s molasses pace. The film is primarily centered around Killian and Elizabeth holing up in the treehouse. Trautmann and Melanie give passable performances (except for Melanie occasionally overdoing it with the hick shtick), but their characters are nowhere near compelling enough to hold our interest. This might not matter so much if there were anything else to engage us. But we get no real scares, the only deaths occur at the other end of a walkie talkie, and we get no information about the mysterious attackers until the very end of the film (and even then we get very, very little).

The filmmakers are not inept: the tone is fairly consistent, the performances are relatively believable, and the cinematography is above average for this sort of film, with all too fleeting moments of visual interest (some of it provided by the rural Ozark setting). Even the weakest horror movie can usually muster up at least one decent scare or bit of gore, but everything that might give us entertainment or pleasure or some aesthetic enjoyment has been left out of Treehouse, and what we have instead is a rote genre story told at a snail’s pace. It is, in a word, boring.

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