Smart House (2023) Review
If you’re into no-budget, DIY films, and if you’re reading this then you probably are, the name John Oak Dalton may well be familiar to you. He’s best known for the films he’s written for Mark Polonia such as Noah’s Shark and Reel Monsters. He’s also directed some of his own scripts as well, The Girl in the Crawlspace, Scarecrow County and now Smart House, which he was nice enough to hook me up with an advance screener of.
As you can guess from the title, Smart House is another entry into a genre that is usually thought of as a reaction to modern technology, But films like Margaux, Dark Cloud, and I’ll Be Watching are actually part of the genre’s second wave. As far back as 1951 Ray Bradbury touched on the theme in some of the stories in The Illustrated Man. But it was Demon Seed, written in 1973 by Dean Koontz and filmed four years later, that defined the home AI turned hostile genre. And fifty years later, with smart homes and self-driving cars becoming a reality, these films are more relevant than ever.
The film focuses on Mari (Iabou Windimere, Alone in the Ghost House, People to Kill) an ASMR influencer living in a smart house designed by her father Cordell (Tom Cherry, Grove Lake, The Girl in the Crawlspace). He can’t live in the house due to a hacking conviction that limits his access to computers and technology. Mari isn’t entirely alone however, she has Cassandra voiced by Brinke Stevens (Apex Predators, It Wants Blood!) the house’s AI, for company.
Despite the calm, happy image she projects in her videos, Mari is not a happy person. She may have gotten out of her relationship with the abusive Shawn (Joe Kidd, Boggy Creek – The Bigfoot Series, Betsy) but the scars, and the fear he’ll return, won’t go away. So when Cassandra starts acting strangely, she rapidly becomes alarmed. And she has good reason to be as Cassandra, or whoever has taken over, eventually locks the house down and forces her to read a manifesto on her livestream.
While I’m not sure if Smart House was filmed during COVID lockdown, it certainly looks like it. Characters are almost never in scenes with each other, they talk on the phone or online and in the comments we see on Mari’s livestream. Whatever the reason, it works quite well here, reflecting the social media scene where everyone interacts remotely. This is especially true once Cordell puts his freedom on the line to contact his old crew in order to free his daughter.
Dalton, who co-wrote Smart House with Luka Nikolic and Richard Pierce (Abducted on Prom Night, Student Seduction) taps into the fear of the internet and technology in general as a vector for stalkers and other criminals, which is a valid enough fear The problem is, it’s never made clear just what the threat to Mari is. Yes, she’s locked in the house, but what can Cassandra do beyond that? I didn’t catch a mention of any lethal security devices in the house, so there’s nothing to stop her from telling them to fuck off, smashing a window and leaving.
Being a microbudget film, there isn’t much in the way of effects in Smart House, but the plot doesn’t really call for them. There also isn’t anything in the way of gore or nudity either, so it all falls on the script and actors to keep the viewer entertained. And for the most part, they do. There were a couple of points where Windimere seems to lose her focus, but that may be her trying to show Mari’s struggle to stay in her online persona and not let her real thoughts come out.
If you can ignore its relatively minor flaws and low budget, Smart House is a good microbudget thriller, with an added bonus if those whispery ASMR videos are your thing. They don’t do anything for me, but obviously somebody is watching them. It’s also good to finally see a YouTube personality who looks like an actual human being and not the supermodel wannabes I’ve seen in so many other films.
Smart House has been picked up by ITN, but there’s no word on a possible release date as of yet. Hopefully, we’ll at least get a real poster soon. In the meantime, FilmTagger can suggest a few similar titles for your viewing pleasure.