Ever since the mid-1970s when George and Kathleen Lutz bought the house at 112 Ocean Avenue, Amityville, Long Island, for $80,000 without realising it was haunted, the horror genre and the real estate industry have been in a lucrative relationship. Three years after the The Amityville Horror in 1979 came Poltergeist, in which real-estate developer Steven Freeling finds his family home in a gated California community menaced by malevolent spirits who make themselves known through a hand that emerges from TV static. “They’re here,” announces Freeling’s daughter.
The Selling, a crowd-funded film populated by unknowns that barely made a ripple when it was released in 2011, is a delightful satire of real estate horror movies, 86 minutes of the hybrid genre that’s arguably the hardest to pull off: the comedy horror. It’s populated by films and series that are either too pleased with themselves (Wes Craven’s Scream, Zombieland), get the ratio of horror to comedy wrong (An American Werewolf in London) or don’t realise how funny they are (The Shining, The Others).
All too few horror films quote Nietzsche, but, in the opening of The Selling (AKA The Selling of Scarry Manor), useless estate agent Richard Scarry (Gabriel Diani) can’t think of any good advice to offer a pair of house prospective hunters so he falls back on the quote of the day from his phone. “Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” The couple look at him blankly. “So there’s that to think about,” he counsels idiotically.
The quote proves pertinent, though. This is a film about seeing monsters and becoming monstrous. There be monsters in the latest house on Scarry’s books and he winds up battling them so he can flip the property on to unsuspecting rubes. To be fair, he is in extremis: he needs to make money fast as his mother’s cancer treatment won’t pay for itself. Is it wrong to sell a house without telling prospective purchasers it’s haunted?
This sort of moral conundrum must be playing out, even as we speak, all around the world where estate agents are tasked with selling homes where horrors happened. True, Fred West’s home in Gloucester was bulldozed, but Dennis Nielsen’s in Muswell Hill still stands – I had a friend who was shown around it by an estate agent who only when pressed disclosed its hideous past.
Already his co-worker, the superbly chilly and diabolically manipulative realtor Mary Best has run screaming from the property and palmed it off her books on to Scarry’s without disclosing its appalling secret. The expression on her face as she scarpers down the street unerringly recalls those of guests on the 90s makeover show Changing Rooms after Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen stencilled their living room.
If you were being serious in your analysis of this film, and you really shouldn’t be, The Selling is a metaphor for America. There were already humans living in America before the Europeans arrived but they got squeezed out so that interlopers could monetise the asset from sea to shining sea. Scarry Manor is emblematic of the colonisation of America, serious face.
But it’s also funny. When Scarry shows a couple the property, cabinet doors fly open, water pours unbidden from taps, and the walls start to bleed. He opens one door and nearly gets sucked into a trans-dimensional wormhole. “Sometimes,” he deadpans. “the bedroom closet becomes a portal to the spirit realm.”
After the ghosts drive away all potential buyers, Scarry enlists the help of a priest played by Barry Bostwick. When Father Jimmy turns up to perform an exorcism, he stands on the front path in silhouette like the eponymous exorcist of William Friedkin’s movie (The Selling drips with jokey homages to past horror movies). As soon as he begins his exorcism, Father Jimmy screams and clutches his heart. But it’s a scream of delight: the original features include some excellent stained glass.
When Scarry fails to exorcise the ghosts, a waitress called Ginger Sparks (Etta Devine) with extensive knowledge of the spirit realm offers her services to cleanse the property. She tries everything she knows including goat sacrifice but only makes matters worse. The spirits decide house haunting is fun, but not as much fun as possessing the protagonists in the film’s final reel. This is where The Selling becomes a convincing depiction of the hell we’re living in, a world where estate agents are diabolically possessed. Our heroes have become monsters.
As for Gabriel Diani and Etta Devine, they went on to make Diani & Devine Meet the Apocalypse in 2016. What they should do now is make a sequel of The Selling fit for our Covid age, using found footage, like that from Paranormal Activity or Blair Witch, culled from virtual house tours. Zoom calls that start in the middle of the night. Ghosts that you can’t mute. Spirits that pop up in FaceTime and reach through the computer screen when you start a property slideshow on Zoopla. Now that would be scary.