TREEHOUSE (2015)

Editor’s Note: This was originally published for FANGORIA on February 20, 2015, and we’re proud to share it as part of The Gingold Files.


Treehouse proves the maxim that a foreign director can be the right choice for an American story, as the rural Midwest atmosphere caught by British filmmaker Michael G. Bartlett is one of the best things about the film.

A recent transplant from the UK, where he co-directed the found-footage Zombie Diaries and Paranormal Diaries movies, Bartlett captures both the neighborhood friendliness and isolated eeriness of Treehouse’s Missouri locations. As opposed to the handheld roughness of his past work, Bartlett here teams with cinematographer J. Christopher Campbell (who’s served on the camera crews of everything from The Signal to Zombieland to TV’s The Vampire Diaries and Teen Wolf) to craft more painterly and composed yet still authentic visuals. The early sequences have the homey, lived-in feel of regional fright flicks from the ’70s, taking us to White River, a burg that has been plagued by the disappearances of its young people.

The latest double-vanishing (the circumstances of which we witness in the opening scene) lead an annual festival to be cancelled, spurring local teen Crawford (Daniel Fredrick) to take his slightly younger brother Killian (J. Michael Trautmann) out into the woods for an impromptu fireworks show. They wind up discovering something unexpected up in the air: the eponymous treehouse, containing one very frightened girl named Elizabeth (Dana Melanie), who has escaped—for the moment—whatever has been claiming those teen and preteen victims. And whatever it or they are, it or they now know the three of them are up there…

Eschewing the body-count or torture scenarios common to rustic fright flicks, Bartlett and co-writers Alex Child and Mike Harrington emphasize the tightening of psychological screws, turning Treehouse into a variation on the siege-movie formula. The circumstances leading the protagonists to be trapped get a bit contrived (Elizabeth ran barefoot out into the woods, stepped on broken glass, and the pain didn’t set in till after she climbed up the tree, then prevented her from climbing back down), and there’s some awkward dialogue, but there’s also an overall tension humming consistently through the first hour or so. Part of that derives from the fact that for a while, neither we nor the kids know just what it is that’s lurking out in the trees; there are brief glimpses of humanoid forms in the distance, and they could be supernatural, cryptozoological…or something else.

As with the environment, there’s a pleasing naturalism to the three lead characters. They aren’t overwritten in the manner of so many screen teens, instead behaving like typical kids dealing with typical issues before they’re faced with extraordinary circumstances. Killian has problems with high-school bullies, and while it’s inevitable that he’ll have to man up to face the horrific situation, the issue isn’t forced too much.

Eventually, he and Elizabeth do confront the menace—and that’s where Treehouse stumbles. After building an ominous sense of mystery around the threat, the revelation of its nature brings the movie literally and figuratively down to earth, in a way that actually contradicts what has gone before. Bartlett apparently did the bulk of his rewrite work on the latter half of the script, and the change in emphasis shows; the resulting action is prosaic and generic, and gets by largely on the goodwill established by the young performers. And it leads to an ending that’s both unsatisfyingly open and way too on-the-nose, and threatens to tip the movie over into self-parody.

Too bad; for a while there, Treehouse gets a good head of tension brewing, and makes effectively claustrophobic use of the titular setting. Unlike the characters, it’s only when the movie eventually leaves the treehouse that it starts running into trouble.

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