Thursday, October 10, 2013

Shocktober Review Revisited: The House of the Devil

Closing out our week of horror (and of horrors involving rolling blackouts), I finally watched The House of the Devil, and I'm glad I did. Alternately, I wish I hadn't. Allow me to explain.

The House of the Devil is a great horror film. It's the kind of film that from moment one fills you with a pervasive dread for the horrible thing you know is coming. Writer / Director / Editor Ti West does such a great job of milking that tension, of letting it build and build that at a certain point I found myself saying "no, don't go up there. just don't do it.", because that's how great this movie is at preparing you for the worst. Nothing good can happen in this film, no matter how innocuous it seems at times.

I love that there are no "jump" scares. Not one. And there are plenty of opportunities for them. There are two that come close, but both of them are "jumps" for characters, because by the time you realize what it is they're reacting to, the dread's kicked back in. I have to think that part of this is because of the "gimmick" of The House of the Devil, if you want to call it that.

The film is a throwback to the very early 80s, like before all the neon day-glo colors were pervasive and when it seemed reasonable to still have feathered hair and jean jackets. If it helps, think Friday the 13th part 2 instead of Part 4. But Ti West isn't making a "wink wink" movie set in the 1980s; The House of the Devil plays it straight. The creepy music, the camera angles, set design, lighting, a perfectly constructed montage in the middle of the film. Even the grain, which I must assume was at least partially digitally added, is reminiscent of low budget movies of the era (like Splatter University).

More importantly, West understands that The House of the Devil needs to look like a film of that period, so he films it appropriately. Long takes, slow push ins and pull outs, trickery with lighting. Beyond that, The House of the Devil does what The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake failed to do: the cast looks like they belong in the period. There's nothing about Jessica Biel and Eric Balfour tooling around in bell bottoms that says "oh, it's actually the 1970s and not just let's play dress up," but West manages to get it spot on in casting.

Central to this is Jocelin Donahue as Samantha; there's something about her that's reminiscent of a young Karen Allen (or even Jessica Harper in Suspiria), but she looks like she lives and breathes in that time period. It doesn't look like the A&F models dropped into horror films that I mentioned the other day. Donahue's Samantha is a character that feels organic to the film, and not imposed on a time frame. It doesn't hurt that she's not very well known, nor a most of the small cast (save for three, and I'll get to them in a second), but nobody sticks out like "oh, 2009 playing dress up in 1982."

Samantha is a college student in a nondescript northeastern town in a not specific early 80s setting. She's trying to get an apartment, but can't afford to pay the first month's rent, and decides to respond to an ad that says "Baby $itter Wanted." The house is out in the middle of the country, and Mr. and Mrs. Ulman aren't exactly forthright about what they want her to do, but the money is too good to pass up. All she has to do is stay in the house until midnight with an old woman who is (mostly) unseen. But then little inconsistencies start adding up, and before too long, it's very clear to Samantha that something is very wrong in this house...

If there's anything that wouldn't clearly fool audiences into thinking The House of the Devil wasn't a "lost" film from the 1980s, it's the presence of Mr. and Mrs. Ulman, played by Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov. You may not recognize the names, but check out their filmographies and you'll see more than a few movies you've watched. (To a lesser degree, Dee Wallace appears very early in the film, but it's possible that you might catch it on tv after the title sequence and miss her entirely) That Noonan was in Wolfen in 1981 and Woronov in Eating Raoul in 1982 would make it a little tricky to reconcile the clear age differences in The House of the Devil, but it doesn't matter because they're so creepy in the film.

And that's a big component here. It's exactly why I wish I hadn't seen The House of the Devil alone and late at night. Seriously, not since The Haunting have I been so unnerved by watching a film by myself. The film is just creepy, because you just know something awful is coming, but West is so good at drawing it out, slowly, patiently, that the audience is freaking out long before things get twisted. And make no mistake, they do; the camera style switches to a much more fluid, hand held approach for that point, but I wouldn't dream of spoiling the last ten minutes of the film. It's pitch perfect, including the ending, which restores dread in a way that carries on well after the credits finish rolling.

I guess there might be some nitpickers in the IMDB "Goofs" page that'll go after a few tiny anachronisms early in the movie (yes, I noticed the very 2007 SUV in the background too, get over it), but once the film really gets going at the Ulman's house, you stop caring about little crap like that. The story is too unnerving, as you sit anticipating the awful thing that happens when the lunar eclipse finally comes, to bother with things like "that phone wouldn't blah blah."

Horror fans looking for an honest to goodness creepy film that builds atmosphere over cheap trickery and avoids gore for as long as it possibly can should run - not walk - to buy The House of the Devil. That's right, I said BUY it. You don't need to waffle around and rent it, because if you're the kind of person that reacted when I compared this film to The Haunting, you know I mean business. I wish that somehow The House of the Devil could have traded places with Paranormal Activity, so that it did crazy business and ushered in an era of really good serious horror films, instead of more "found footage" garbage.

Hopefully, this movie is going to have a crazy good life as a "cult" film on cable, where viewers will come in sometime in the first twenty minutes or so and think they're watching a movie from the 80s. It does its job well enough that you could.

Watch The House of the Devil. Post haste. I'll be giving away a copy of the dvd at the Oscar party. Sorry, the VHS copy is mine. And for the record, I had the same kind of walkman that Samantha uses in the film. It only fast-forwarded, never rewound, and the tape usually got stuck, even if you pressed the "Stop/Eject" button hard enough. I also had those earphones. Man, I miss those earphones...

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