Ex-convict Tieg, her stripper sister Sirah, and their junkie half-sister Lily, make a desperate attempt to make better lives for themselves. Stealing a suitcase full of heroin from Sirah’s boyfriend, Tommy, they hide out in Tieg’s and Sirah’s childhood home. The idea is that the heat should die down after a month. That should give them time to get Lily dried out and plot out a plan for the rest of their lives. All they have to do is wait out the month, then Teig’s contacts will come for the shipment and then they’re free. The only things standing in the way of all that, of course, is themselves and their relationships with each other.
Lily is the product of an extra-marital affair between her mother and Teig’s and Sirah’s abusive father, which caused an existing rift in the family to crumble further. Through nightmares, we are shown flashes of young Sirah witnessing her pregnant mother miscarrying and her father dragging her by the hair into the bathroom, just before Teig pulls her away and slams the door behind them. Teig, too, has only memories of fatherly violence, and being locked away in the dark root cellar beneath the floor. As they attempt to get Lily clean—forced to tie her to a bare mattress at one point—the house and the memories starts to get to them. It’s impossible to flee your past, it would seem, if you’re holed up in it. It isn’t too long before the unpleasant memories of their parents begin to manifest.
House of Bad is a remarkably strong psychological study from Jim Towns, who wrote the solid script with Scott Frazelle. There are no easy answers for the sisters and, as well, none for the viewer. The movie doesn’t lead us by the hand through its plot. There are no “remember that time dad beat you with a TV antenna?” moments of exposition. We only learn if Sirah and Teig decide to share with Lily. And since Teig resents Lily’s very existence, disdains what she sees as weakness in Sirah, she’s not the most nurturing of siblings. She’s had to be tough all her life and returning to the house is making her tougher still, reinforcing long-standing walls.
The principal performances in House of Bad are all stellar. Tyler, Katz and Sands are so believable as the sisters, you get caught up in their plight immediately. In fact, subplots—like one of the three texting Tommy in a moment of weakness, giving away their location, and even the ghosts—seem almost unnecessary. Granted, they’re the pitch to take the ride, but House of Bad isn’t really about the ghosts in the house, even at the end. It’s about personal, human dysfunction, and the inability to move on after tragedy and circumstance.
The three sisters are completely relatable, and neither the actors, nor Towns, sacrifices their characters for plot motivation. Nor does the movie break its own internal rules regarding the supernatural. Nothing the ghosts do really affect their actions, it’s what already exists inside that move them in the paths that they choose. There are chilling moments to be sure, but mostly House of Bad is just very, very sad. We all know of—or are—people like Teig, or Sirah, or Lily, with terrible pasts, with no way to break a cycle of abuse. More than the typical “don’t let your past haunt you” metaphor, House of Bad’s message, to me, was “don’t let your past overcome you.”