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Cristina Rodlo as Ambar, in closeup, weeping and frightened Photo: Netflix

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Netflix’s haunted-house movie No One Gets Out Alive blows its one big shiny idea

It’s a message movie that seems incredibly confused about its message

Netflix’s haunted-house thriller No One Gets Out Alive is trying to flex undocumented immigrant fears into shocking frights, but the kickoff scene exemplifies all the ways those aims come up short. A woman speaking on the phone with her brother sits in a gloomy green living room while a storm rages outside. On the television, a news program shows undocumented immigrants being arrested by Border Patrol. Wet footsteps creep across the floor, and the power goes out. She sees a box at the end of the hall, and then is summarily attacked by a glowing-eyed ghost.

It’s a standard horror-movie opening, meant to explain the rules of this world. And the sequence would work, if it weren’t so disconnected from the rest of the movie. Because over the next 85 minutes, the ghost will not perform this way. The haunted crate will not act in a similar manner. The immigration theme will be as distanced as the television screen. The four-story dilapidated Victorian house this movie takes place in will be as generic as any other. And we never hear anything further about that character again.

An adaptation of Adam Nevill’s 2014 horror novel, scripted by Jon Croker and Fernanda Coppel and directed by Santiago Menghini, No One Gets Out Alive is a desperate attempt to explore the immigration crisis through a horror lens, à la Remi Weekes’ stunning film His House. But Menghini’s film is an underwritten hodgepodge of hollow scares.

Cristina Rodlo as Ambar sits in a subway train that seems to extend to infinity in No One Gets Out Alive Photo: Netflix

That’s a shame, given the intriguing premise. Ambar (an underwhelming Cristina Rodlo) has just arrived in the U.S. from Mexico after caring for her ailing mother for several years. Now she’s in America looking to earn a degree in business management. Her affluent, distant uncle (David Barrera) has even set her up with a job interview. But she has one obstacle: Having arrived hidden in the back of a truck, she doesn’t have an ID. Without one, she can’t interview. She also can’t stay at the motel where she’s been renting a room, because the owner is now requiring identification. While earning money as a seamstress at an illegal sweatshop, she sees an ad for cheap rooms at a place called Schofield Heights.

The Victorian home isn’t uniquely designed. Cinematographer Stephen Murphy’s blue-green lighting blends with the turquoise wallpaper and plethora of leather chairs to give the film a steampunk aesthetic. Creaky noises and weird voices emanate from the building’s basement, but the landlord, Red (Marc Menchaca), doesn’t want anyone going down there to check on the situation. There’s also green dust on the walls. The only distinctly designed room in the home is the study: There, dioramas of beatles, butterflies, and skulls decorate the walls. An audiotape concerning ancient ritual killings plays on a loop. Perfectly normal stuff.

The hiccup in this movie partly stems from the adaptation. Fans of the book will notice major changes. For instance, Neville’s novel focuses on a lonely woman named Stephanie who’s tired of working temp jobs and living in terrible housing. In their iteration, Croker and Coppel recast Stephanie as Ambar, and they populate the house with other immigrating women, like the rarely seen Freja (Vala Noren) and two Romanian sex workers named Maria and Petra. But the writers don’t retool these women enough to tease out the deeper themes they hope to explore. While the novel grappled with poverty, this version uses Ambar’s economic disadvantages as a motive for her entering the country, but does little else with that idea once she arrives.

Compare His House to No One Gets Out Alive, and the threadbare components of this film are apparent. Like the two leads in Weekes’ haunted-house flick, Ambar is wrenched by survivor’s guilt. Every night, she listens to her deceased mother’s voicemail and dreams about the days she spent with her in the hospital. Neither her grief nor her regret for putting her life on hold to care for her mom are made tangible. Outside of a scene where Ambar sees a cop in a diner, the hostility the outside world has toward immigrants doesn’t translate.

The cultural imagery doesn’t bubble toward the surface the way it did in His House, either. To open the film, Menghini introduces a super-8 sequence of a Professor Aurhur Welles, in 1963 Mexico, pulling a mysterious crate from a hole in the ground. Ambar often dreams about this crate, and the puzzling creature living inside it. Where His House leverages African folklore for shocking frights, the pre-Columbian references in No One Gets Out Alive barely rise above incidental.

Cristina Rodlo as Ambar is stalked in the dark by a glowing-eyed ghost in No One Gets Out Alive Photo: Netflix

Apart from the eerie costuming and the affecting glowing-eyes practical effect, the ghosts who populate the Victorian house are also rendered moot. They don’t attack Ambar. Instead, she witnesses how they died at a woman’s hands. Since the movie begins with ghosts attacking a woman, and it’s clear that gender isn’t an issue in their targeting, it’s odd that no explanation is offered for how or why Ambar remains untouched. Instead the main threat to her appears to be Red’s older brother Becker (David Figlioli), a hulking mass labeled by Red as mentally unwell.

The ghosts represent the many ways No One Gets Out Alive breaks its own rules. When the mysterious creature appears onscreen, Menghini pitches it as a beast that lulls victims into deep sleeps, where their loved ones are apparitions used by the beast to lull them into complacency. The restive state allows the colorful demon to decapitate its prey. In the closing scenes, however, which feature lots of blood and retribution, the creature doesn’t carry out any of this supposed killing ritual.

No One Gets Out Alive doesn’t retool the haunted-house premise, and doesn’t use its familiar constructs for further frights. Nor does it leverage the theme of immigration for scares or compelling commentary. Instead, Menghini’s vision is a dull ride suffering from uneven writing. The looseness of the immigration themes is dispiriting, because so often, horror can cause audiences to rethink past their misconceptions, and see people in their realest humanity. In a moment where immigration remains a hot-button topic, and dehumanization of immigrants continues worldwide, this film doesn’t just fail to offer the requisite scares, it does little to remake the conversation, or offer any kind of meaningful empathy or insight.

No One Gets Out Alive is streaming on Netflix now.