Human beings are funny sometimes. I know, real hot-take here, but take the stigma of a “murder-house”—a property where some sort of gruesome crime has taken place prior. It’s understood and accepted that these locations are to be shunned or destroyed, but we don’t extend that circle of blame very far. How specific do we need to be when incriminating a location for the crime of a human? We certainly didn’t abandon America en masse when we had a bloody Civil War, nor did San Francisco empty out during the reign of the Zodiac. I suppose a house is different, because of what we demand of it—to provide a sense of safety, a catalog fo our personal history—but, after watching Nicholas Coles’ immensely entertaining documentary short, The House is Innocent, which examines the peculiar spectacle of Sacramento’s infamous “murder-house” and the quirky couple that have made it home, I’d like to think that I’d not join the chorus of victim-blaming—indeed that house is innocent!
The film is less a defense of the house of course than a portrait of the middle age couple that presently inhabit it, but the cheeky title of the film sums up its whimsical appeal. It’s certainly strange that a documentary which details the horrific crimes of one Dorothea Puente, whom murdered at least 9 people and buried them in her backyard, would be described as “whimsical”, but the film has a charming comedic tone to it, largely provided by it’s on-camera subjects, Tom and Barbara.
Something of true-crime geeks already, when the murder-house went on sale at rock bottom prices, the couple couldn’t believe their luck. Sure, people looked at them funny and gawkers would congregate outside of the gate, but rather than be aggrieved, Tom leans into the bit, posting messages and plaques of questionable taste around the property, and eventually adding tours. One part Fixer Upper, to one part Halloween haunted house, the murder house has become part of Tom and Barbara’s identity, as they’ve transformed it from a crime scene into a home, while still keeping reminders of gruesome past. In documenting this story, Coles stumbled into the most serendipitous aspect of a profile doc—subjects whom are great on camera.
Coles came to Tom and Barbara in an organic way—he was researching the Puente crimes for a feature film script (which he has subsequently written with his wife, and has attached Geena Davis to play Dorothea), and was put in touch with the couple. Charmed by their gregarious nature (they welcomed him in, and offered him wine at 2pm) Coles knew he had wonderful subjects for a short doc.
The execution of the project is standard, but pleasing—a mix of fresh shot interviews and b-roll alongside a wealth of archival news reports from the time of the crimes. Coles also shot a bit of Super 8 footage to better delineate between time frames, which provides a welcome bit of stylistic flair. Most importantly the film moves. It’s an unquantifiable quality to a documentary, when the pacing just sings, and I feel that Editor Mike Madrid nails it here, as the films zips along with nary a snag.
This combination of lurid subject, gentle comedy and breezy storytelling has proven a hit on the festival circuit, where the film played Tribeca and has received a handful of other festival grand prizes. That crowd-pleasing appeal I’m sure will now extend to online, where the film is debuting on Vimeo today. In the interim Coles has been busy developing his narrative feature, as well as simultaneously working on a new short. He’s finishing up a short documentary following a death row reporter in Texas who has witnessed over 400 executions, which we hope to check out soon.