The Austin Chronicle


Rated R, 105 min. Directed by Sonja O'Hara. Starring Stephen Lang, Bruce Dern, Shane West, Vanessa Williams, Sarah Hay.

REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., June 17, 2022

What went wrong with architecture? In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, design and space stopped being restricted to the absurdly wealthy, and instead architects started considering both the needs and wants of working class. The peak of this movement was arguably the mid-century, when the post-war suburban expansion meant that well-designed and aesthetically-pleasing houses were affordable and desirable. Somewhere in the eighties, this collapsed into the plague of the McMansion, where size was centered over visual appeal, and now we're stuck with the current wave of shoddily-constructed generiboxes, selected from design catalogues with little interest in setting, location, or anything beyond number of rooms.

Horror suffered the same fate, falling into eras of standardized fare so personality-free that, if it was a subdivision, you'd end up accidentally putting your key in your neighbor's door.

Supernatural horror Mid-Century starts in a very familiar entrance hallway: a couple rent a house, only to find some spooky shenanigans going on. It's at least well-appointed, with a twist of some kind of cult activity behind it all. But just when you think you've seen this banal floorplan before, you turn a corner and blam! There's a weird cocktail bar with a half-wall that looks down into a sub-basement with a miniature bowling alley. It's not a twist, it's a function of the design, and it's what makes Mid-Century like its subject matter.

Of course, cool designs cannot obliterate that the 1950s were an era of hideous sexism, and it's not changed that much for M.D. Alice (Gilligan), who's enduring a lot of invasive touches from smiling senior doctors while she's planning a new job and a relocation, dragging her less-than-willing husband, Tom (West), with her. Her sop to him is that they're staying in a house designed by the late, great Mid-Century modern architect Frederick Banner - indeed not just any house, but Banner's own home. Yet while she's at work, fending off touches and leers, he soon realizes that this glorious house, all clean lines and glass doors, has some much more ancient and gothic slithering through the walls. The audience has a much clearer idea of the blueprints for horror, courtesy of a flashback of Banner (an effortlessly creepy Lang) committing vile occult murder for truly sinister ends.

Mid-Century undoubtedly waits a while to reveal its most intriguing secrets, but once a certain secret door is opened, it turns out to be a des res with fascinating underpinnings. Even before the transition, West does a fantastic sales job on making you want to stay. There's something of Bruce Campbell's hapless dingbattery, minus the prat falls, in his wide-eyed bafflement about exactly what's happening in the house, and he's also not innocent of the chauvinism that pervades the air like cigarette smoke in wallpaper. Once the supernatural elements begin to solidify, he evolves into a tragic everyman, and the tragedy adds a surprising poignancy amid some gnarly shocks. Mid-Century may fit well into the zip code of architectural horror like 13 Ghosts and The Night House, but its unique design makes it well worth the visit.

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