The Zookeeper's Wife
Has many lovely and moving moments but fails to capture the many layers of this unique story, relying instead on plainly-stated metaphors.
Two years ago in this column, I reviewed Kyle Bogart’s wonderful comedy, “Necronomica,” the story of two bandmates in goth make-up coming to terms with their true feelings about art and themselves. It was a film I watched many times just for the sheer pleasure. Bogart’s follow-up, the grizzly tale “House of Straw,” is a completely different sort of film, although a severed animal head does figure into the storyline yet again.
"House of Straw" tells of a suburban married couple whose life has been put on hold due to husband Reed’s (Jason Newman) physical ailment. The less the viewer knows about that, the better. As a result of this, their marriage has its challenges. Emma’s (Liz Beckham) sister is getting married and Emma is supposed to be a bridesmaid, a promise she made at the age of nine. To leave the house for this event, she would have to leave Reed home by himself at night, which is out of the question. There is also the matter of Emma’s lost wedding ring, which might mistakenly be in the hands of another man. Reed has his suspicions.
I’ll stop right there. To explain why the film works as a horror movie is tricky without giving too much away. Bogart sets up the story so that the audience has to try and put the pieces together. “House of Straw” is very careful about what to show the viewer and Mike Simpson’s elegant cinematography helps the film achieve the right uneasy tone. Bogart's short is also smartly cast. Newman and Beckham make for a convincing couple and look as though they’ve had a long, mostly successful marriage, but now have to deal with a new problem that threatens to destroy them (hence the title, which alludes to the story in more ways than one).
Horror shorts are hard to pull off, mainly because the stories usually have to build quietly to the scary stuff and the short film format does not lend itself to that kind of experience. “House of Straw” is not so much scary as it is conceptually horrifying and that might be the best thing a horror short can aspire to be. It also doesn’t hurt that when Bogart’s film ends, you hope to someday see the film play out as a feature.
Spoilers contained in the following Q&A. Watch the film (at the bottom of the page) first!
How did this story come about?
I had been playing with the idea of doing a film that got into the practical nuts and bolts of containing and feeding a monster every 30 days. I knew it could yield some really cool sequences, but didn’t know what that film would be about. Around that same time, I went through a divorce and that gave me all the meaning I needed. I think a lot of young marriages fall apart due to stresses involved with practical concerns like money and career. I thought it would be interesting to tell a story about a marriage succumbing to a stress that is a little more horrific.
Again, you have a film in which a severed animal head is integral to the storyline. Is this a conscious choice?
That’s funny. No. I’m not sure how this keeps happening. Maybe it’s because I’m in Texas. Maybe it’s because I’m a bit of a foodie. But I do love butcher shops and livestock farms. Or at least am fascinated by them. Or maybe I’m just hungry.
The effects in the final act remind me of a couple films from the early ‘80s involving a similar creature. Were there any challenges in creating this beast?
We hear the G’mork from “The Neverending Story” a lot. And yes. That was definitely a reference point for the design. From the beginning, I knew we had to approach how and when the creature would be revealed carefully since we would not have the resources the render him in full. What you see on screen is what we made. An inch to the right or left and you’d see puppeteers and rods. But I’m really happy with how it turned out.
Some have said they would love to see “House of Straw” made into a series and I know you’re working on it as a feature. Does the idea of a series interest you at all?
Absolutely. The story was originally conceived as a feature film because that is the world with which I am most familiar. But the story itself, both conceptually and thematically, lends itself to following the characters through different stages of their life. I always found myself trying to slim it down to fit the feature screenplay. I find some of the long-form storytelling on Netflix and television to be really inspiring. So in other words, yes. That would be an exciting direction to take the project.
What can we expect from a feature film version of “House of Straw” and what is the goal as far as production and release?
I think a lot of features based on shorts give you the same thing but longer and slower. “House of Straw” was always a bigger story. One that would follow a couple from the us-against-the-world optimism of young love to the tedium of marriage. So the short represents a small sliver of that, pulled from deep within their story. I can’t say much about the production other than the reception of the short has enabled us to meet some amazing people and hopefully we can make some announcements soon.
This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...