Saturday, June 12, 2010


Directed by Ti West

Starring Joceline Donahue, Greta Gerwig, Tom Noona, Mary Woronov

Ti West wasn't content with just delivering an homage to late 70's/early 80's horror with his film The House of the Devil. Oh no. He wanted to make you think you're actually watching a movie filmed during that era. For the most part, nay, for the whole part he succeeds. The House of the Devil feels like you're popping a videotape into your VCR and viewing a not-quite-cult yet not-exactly-mainstream film made by an up and coming filmmaker with a bright future directing solid and even classic genre films. The thing is, not only does he nail the period filmmaking and feel, he also creates, with The House of the Devil, a great modern genre film that serves as a starkly subtle counterpoint to the Saw's and Platinum Dune output of today's horror landscape.

Using equipment straight from 30 years ago (like, say, the band Witchcraft uses vintage recording gear when transcribing their albums), West seeks to evoke a certain period with his creation. The costuming must be perfect. The feathered hairstyles and tight jeans just right. The use of a four-track walkman by our heroine must be highlighted. And, most, of all, the story must revolve around the era's paranoia of Satanic cults and unholy sacrifice.

Jocelin Donahue plays Samantha, a smart but somewhat lonely college student who finds her first apartment but can't scrounge up enough money to pay for it. Given a financial reprieve by her landlady (Dee Wallace), Samantha accepts a job babysitting for Mr. and Mrs. Ulman (Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov). When Samantha and her tag-along friend Megan (Greta Gerwig, who's so sexy adorable and adorably sexy as to defy logic) arrive at the Ulman residence, they find that sitting a baby isn't exactly what the strange couple had in mind. It is not a spoiler to say that pentagrams and Lucifer worship ensues.

The House of the Devil's strengths lie in West's seriously magnificent directing chops. I'm not going to pretend to have any more than a surface knowledge of framing, but West's camera is constantly capturing stunningly moody images (such as seen here), and his instinct for creating atmosphere is highly tuned. He uses the rectangular shape of doors and hallways to instill a sense of enclosure. Sharply defined shadows ensnare Samantha, and those shadows become more and more foreboding as the film sheds its frames. Some of the images that radiate of the screen are startlingly unsettling, to say the least.

I glorify the technical aspects of The House of the Devil because the film is, by all accounts, molasses slow. See Samantha walk across campus! Watch Sam and Megan eat pizza! Sam walks some more! Now she dances to The Fixx with her big-ass headphones! There is a lot of down-time in the film, and criticisms that nothing happens are well-founded. They're just not criticisms I happen to agree with. The House of the Devil is so precise technically and so engaging with performance (both in its execution and performance of the actors) that the lack of narrative drive didn't hit me until a good hour into the film, and by that time the film had become so tense that I didn't even notice the jump from subtle, atmosphere-building horror to straight-up in-your-face gore, a jump that is handled with grace but still feels disconnected from the previous sixty minutes. I wish West had scaled back on the blood and frenetic feel of the punch in the last reel of the film. Not only does it feature a make-up job worthy of the worst haunted house in America, but it also seems as if West is trying to over-compensate for the lackadaisical nature of what came before. I'm all for a slow-burn culminating in a burst of manic-inspired mayhem (see my favorite movie, Alien), but in the case of The House of the Devil, less should have been rewarded with a little more than less.

As much as The House of the Devil relies heavily on its technical highlights, it also features magnetic performances by its cast. Jocelin Donahue is suitably smart yet naive and outsider-ish, and Greta Gerwin is aces as Sam's entitled and loyal best friend, but Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov steal the movie as the Satanic Mr. and Mrs. Ulman. Noonan especially pleases in his scenes, walking the line between sweet and creepy. The odd looking actor has never looked more normal, even when playing a sinister acolyte of the Devil. And Woronov (a genre veteran) is disgustingly sexy (and creepily disgusting) in her small role. And AJ Bowen (cast member of The Signal, another outstanding modern horror film I need to cover on this site) makes an impression as Jr. Ulman, a plump, faux-good samaritan.

I haven't even begun to describe how perfect the original music to The House of the Devil is, or how well the marketing nailed the look and feel of the film (seriously, just check out that poster above, and you'll see what I mean), but I think I've covered what works about the film well enough. It may not work for all audiences - especially an audience fed horror garbage the past ten years - but for folks looking for non-cynical, serious, well crafted, Hitchockian, deliberately slow-paced masterful horror film, spend a night in  The House of the Devil.


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