French Indonesia, 1953, a war orphan gets hired as a housemaid at a plantation house. As she falls in love with the Captain who owns it, he discovers a new interest in life. As things evolve something is clearly off with the people at the plantation and its past.
This film by writer/director Derek Nguyen is heavy on the atmosphere but as a ghost of the past film meant to be scary, the scares are light and will not scare many hardened horror fans. For the more casual horror viewer, some of the scares will work and the multiple twists at the ending should keep surprising them. The film’s atmosphere is thick with a creepy feeling throughout felt no matter the level of horror fandom and that part of the film works really well. The writing here is definitely knowing of what it’s doing while the direction gives it that extra atmospheric ooph that creates suspense, mystery, and tension with a few moments of tenderness as contrast to balance things out.
The cast of The Housemaid is fairly small considering the sprawling estate and scope of the story. This lack of people definitely adds to the emptiness of the house and the creepy atmosphere that permeates it. In the titular part, actress Kate Nhung does fantastic work keeping her character more subdued and quiet, a woman ready to serve her employer and eventually her cause. Nhung’s work as Linh anchors the film and great helps give it impact. Playing the estate owner, Captain Sebastien Laurent, Jean-Michel Richaud gives a stern performance that works well with the story, the house, and its past. The other cast members do well and show the right amount of emotions as the film advances and the intensity of the happenings goes up. The cast overall is strong and help put the story in human form.
The film’s atmosphere owes a lot to the cinematography by Sam Chase. The sweeping shots of the estate and inside the house, the way the Captain’s bed is framed and focused on when he may be dying, the rubber tree forest and all its ominous presence are all shot with a great attention to detail and a fantastic eye for ways to put feelings, atmosphere and dread into images that are both loaded with these and strangely beautiful. Chase’s work is edited by Stephane Guager who shows a knowledge and ability to cut scenes exactly at the right moment, showing just enough, lingering just the right amount of time, helping the story move forward at a good pace even when there is not much going on in terms of scares.
Assisting the visuals and story is the music by Jerome Leroy. His music is there but almost not, it’s doing exactly what an effective score should do, it supports the images and the story without overtaking them or overpowering them. The delicate balance his music achieves helps greatly to establish a feeling of dread and a release of tension whenever needed. Or whenever it should be needed.
The Housemaid is a film that should be watched for its atmosphere, performances, and attention to details. While the scares don’t all work all that well, the general feeling of dread created permeates the film until its very end. It’s not scary per sey, but it’s beautiful to watch. Its timely subject in these days and age of people waking up to the horrors of the past and trying to right wrongs is fitting, but the film doesn’t do enough with it or with the potential for proper scares along the way.