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Bleak Model House confidently struts down the horror catwalk

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Theaters / PVOD

Indie horror effort Model House is a perfect case study of judging a film for what it is and not for what you want or expect it to be. After viewing the trailer, I admit I let myself think this was going to be a silly throwaway effort overflowing with gore, laughs, and purposefully ridiculous plotting. That was not the case.

Instead, writer-director Derek Pike treats his rather shrewd premise seriously, doesn't pull any punches for the sake of a few cheap laughs, and tasks his five terrified protagonists to play things in a grounded manner that amplifies the emotional stakes. The filmmaker attempts to craft a thriller that's more similar to Bryan Bertino's The Strangers than Adam Wingard's You're Next, and it's my fault for going into it assuming the opposite.

In alternate hands, the scenario for Pike's feature-length debut easily could have gone in the direction of horror comedy instead of semi-dour horror social commentary. Five models on a weekend swimwear shoot — one of whom, Zoe (CoryAnne Roberts), is a last-minute replacement — are staying together in a secluded house in an upscale neighborhood. After spending the evening goofing around and creating content for their social media accounts, a pair of masked intruders (Scout Taylor-Compton, Chris Zylka) break in and hold them hostage.

The idea is that this pair of baddies are going to compose social media posts on each woman's account in their name and direct their numerous followers to donate money to a fake charity in honor of a recently deceased supermodel (the person Zoe was sent to replace). At first, everything goes as planned — but this wouldn't be a slasher if all went smoothly and nobody got hurt. The models are forced to fight for their lives when the home invaders accidentally remove their masks, and it soon becomes clear at least one of the hostage-takers is perfectly fine with murdering them all if that's what it takes to get away unscathed.

Initially, Pike plays this fairly fast and loose. Zoe is a bit of an insecure goofball, badly spraining her ankle in her zeal to make an impression during the first day's photo shoot. She's stuck in the house wearing a boot, hobbling around as quickly as she can while the other ladies pranced around taking photos, shooting videos, and coming up with ways to generate content to keep them in the public eye.

What I liked is that Pike refuses to laugh at these five women. While they can be slightly superficial — no shock there — they are still human beings. They each have their own insecurities. They are all dealing with side issues. But while they have some prickly fun with Zoe, they do not make fun of her. She may be new to their group, but she is still one of them and, also like them, has worked hard to get where she's at in the industry. Zoe deserves their support and respect, so while they do play some pranks and gently rib the newcomer for her low follower count, none of it comes from a place of vitriol or cruel pettiness.

But for all the playful vibes generated during the introductory third, the mood decidedly changes when the invaders show up — but not immediately. I appreciate that Pike doesn't just transform his story into a nihilistic exercise in abuse and carnage the very second the pair forces their way into the house. Instead, he lets this happen organically, with the five models dealing with their perilous situation in emotionally distinct ways, while their captors do exactly the same when things begin to play out differently than they planned.

Still, when this change happens, I found it jarring. A jolt of unanticipated violence begins the downward spiral into chaos, and while Taylor-Compton's character has somewhat prepared for events to go haywire, the same cannot be said about her befuddled partner in crime. As portrayed by Zylka, this guy is completely out of his depth. His character has allowed himself to be talked into something that's not going to pan out as expected, and instead of getting rich, it's all too likely that the best-case scenario is he'll end up in jail — if not bruised, battered, bloodied, and wrapped up in plastic, to be disposed of later right alongside the five models.

To say the film gets dark is an obvious understatement — not Martyrs, Wolf Creek, or Funny Games level of nasty, but close enough. Pike is vicious, unleashing death with a gruesome suddenness that startled me. I discovered I shouldn't become too enamored with any of these women, and it's honestly a little unpleasant how a couple of characters are so casually dispatched.

Because of this, the facets of the final third that do end up being silly, clever, or even comedic don't quite work. Pike doesn't have a firm enough handle on events to make these climactic tonal shifts work without calling attention to themselves. It all builds to a battle of wills between Roberts and Taylor-Compton. While this isn't surprising, that they end up on a level intellectual playing field still comes across as something of a convenient script contrivance. As good as the two actors are, their face-off frustratingly doesn't have any oomph, and I can't help but wonder if there were additional scenes Pike had in mind that were edited out of the final cut to get the running time down to a brisk 85 minutes.

Still, this thriller did just enough to win me over. Once I got on its wavelength, I found I was interested enough in learning how things were going to turn out to cut Pike some slack. The filmmaker shows promise, and I appreciate that he refuses to bow to audience-friendly grindhouse convention and instead showcases a bleak killer instinct that's chilling. For those open to downbeat descents into carnage, Model House struts across the horror catwalk with cheerless confidence.