The House of the Devil (2009)

House of the Devil DVD Cover AC Essentials logo
Directed by: Ti West
Released by: Dark Sky Films
Review By: Matthew Dean Hill
Recommended DVD Source: Available Everywhere
Technical: Color; 1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen, 16x9 enhanced; English; Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround; Running Time 95 minutes; MPAA Rating "R" for Some Bloody Violence; Region 1 NTSC; One Disc

So yeah, I'm playing "catch-up" on reviewing some movies that I should've reviewed long ago. The latest of these is Ti West's creepy, well-crafted, babysitter-in-peril flick The House of the Devil, which I originally viewed a couple of years ago while in a pneumonia-induced haze. Though I genuinely liked the film at the time, I just didn't really think about it again until a few months ago, when I decided to sit down and really give the movie its fair shake. I'm glad I did, as The House of the Devil is a damned fine flick, and one of the more tense, well-structured American horror flicks of the last ten years or so. It's not quite the genre-quaking cinematic event that some have made it out to be, but it will go down in history as a kick-ass little suspense piece, and a damned solid thriller in the grand tradition. It's also pure movie-craft, and sure to please the film geek in us all. Besides, the movie rarely panders to the audience or insults our intelligence...a rarity in throwback genre pieces. So, here we go...

House of the Devil Screenshot The synopsis...
The House of the Devil opens with a title card that reads:

During the 1980's over 70% of American adults believed in the existence of abusive Satanic cults...

Another 30% rationalized the lack of evidence due to government cover ups...

The following is based on true unexplained events...
When a modest apartment opens up, pretty college co-ed Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) needs cash quickly for a deposit, so she advertises her babysitting services on campus. Her ads draw a too-good-to-be-true response, when mysterious Mr. Ulman (Tom Noonan) offers her a tidy sum to sit his special-needs child for one evening, while he and Mrs. Ulman (stalwart Mary Wornov) attend festivities surrounding the much-ballyhooed total lunar eclipse. Samantha's BFF Megan (a pitch-perfect Greta Gerwig) is skeptical, and demands to tag along just to make sure Samantha is safe. After making their way down a winding, isolated road to the Ulman residence, Mr. and Mrs. Ulman explain that their original offer was...a bit misleading. There is no "child"; rather, the job is to keep an eye on Mr. Ulman's aged, senile mother. Though Jocelin has her reservations about watching some loony old bat, Mr. Ulman assures her that his dear old mum is harmless, and will probably just sleep in her room in a dark corner of the house the whole time anyway. Mr. Ulman sweetens the deal by offering Jocelin four hundred bucks (plus extra for pizza) for a few hours of sitting, but she must do it alone. Naturally, the cash-strapped Jocelin can't pass it up, despite Megan's protestations. After promising to call Megan in a couple of hours and sending her on her way, Mr. and Mrs. Ulman abscond, leaving Jocelin alone in the cavernous, creepy house. If bad things didn't proceed to happen, it just wouldn't be a horror movie, now would it? I mean, it's not called The House of Not-at-all-Satanic Misunderstandings and Happy Coincidences, right?

House of the Devil Screenshot From the opening moments to its final frame, The House of the Devil is every bit the homage to early-1980's horror flicks that Ti West intended it to be. This is manifested in expected ways, of course; period details (righteously-feathered hair, stone-washed high-waisted jeans, rockin' '80's tunes, etc) abound. But where it really succeeds as a period slice o' terror is in the staging and stylistic choices at work. Little details (like the awesome opening title card "freeze frame" and the similarly...and intentionally...cheesy closing credits) abound, and even the perfectly grainy and saturated film stock matches the look and feel of the period. The film literally "feels" like it's a lost classic...something you would've watched at the local Odeon with your best girlie clutching your arm some Saturday night circa 1980. That's no small feat, Mr. West, and you and your crew are to be congratulated for so successfully bringing your vision to the screen. Most importantly, though, it never feels forced; a few minutes into the flick, you just sit back and accept that this is a film of and taking place during the early 1980's. The illusion is seamless. It's something a lot of filmakers claim to do, and a lot more try to pull it off, but to this writer, it's never been executed so near-flawlessly as it's been here.

The period setting isn't merely a stylistic choice, though; it's actually kind of crucial to the story. The timeframe depicted was a time before cell phones, before the internet, and hence before the instant access to media multiple methods of communication, both useful and dubious. Imagine taking the exact central conceit of The House of the Devil (or any number of other beloved films legitimately "of the period") and transposing it to the present day. One Google search and a couple of cell phone calls would've negated the whole thing. That's another reason why remakes of certifiable classics such as Friday the 13th and even Halloween that shift their time period to the present are doomed to strain suspension of disbelief to near the shattering point. I digress. You young rapscallions won't inherently "get" this, but The House of the Devil operates in a timeframe when a very real "Satanic Panic" was sweeping the nation. Unsolved murder? Dead cattle? Missing child? Soggy Rice Krispies? All of it was blamed on "Satan Worshipers" or the blanket term "cults" during this timeframe. Fueling the fire, of course, the media of the time created even more paranoia, speculation and scapegoating. So, it's entirely believable conceit behind the film. The point is that the period setting isn't just cute, it's tonally appropriate, and it's sociologically accurate, as well. Because I know that all of you care about your horror films being sociologically accurate. Fuck you.

House of the Devil Screenshot Let's talk about influences, for a moment. The House of the Devil has lots of influences and stylistic/narrative forbearers. Notably, the "Apartment Trilogy" of Roman Polanski (Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby, and The Tenant) are obvious predecessors, both stylistically and even in terms of subject matter. Now, I'm not necessarily putting The House of the Devil in the same league with those films, as not enough time has passed for this flick to have earned something as lofty as that. But, I'm guessing that ten, maybe twenty years from now, cinematic hipsters (and yes, I'm one of them, I freely admit) will favorably compare West's film with Polanski's, and will mention HotD comfortably in the same breath amongst the best, subtle horror thrillers of the new era. Ti West employs a cinematic bag of tricks that belie a thorough knowledge of cinema and broad base of influences. Strategic shadows, clever and tense framing of shots, and other techniques ensure that the viewer sees only what West wants them to see, or think they've seen. What's the expression? If you're going to steal, steal from the best. At a rumored budget of under a million bucks, West has done an amazing job of utilizing his resources to their fullest. Worth a special singling-out is the sound design of the film. Good sound design makes the viewer aware of space when necessary, and closes in tight when the scene calls for it. The House of the Dead features some of the more effective sound design in recent memory, especially for a fairly low budget affair. Once again, consummate professionalism abounds.

Ti West kind of achieved a minor coup with his cast. There isn't a bland performance in sight. Even the lovely Ms. Donahue, whose "Samantha" is a rather subdued, low-key character (at least early on) manages to elicit real compassion and interest with her performance. Given that the movie takes place almost entirely from her perspective (with only a handful of scenes occurring without Samantha on-screen), it's crucial that we identify with the character entirely. Smartly, Samantha is a wholly-sympathetic character...a real rarity in genre films. Even as she's very much of the standard "final girl" mold, she's no slouch, and there's nothing unbelievable about any decision or action she takes throughout the picture. Also adorable and quite effective is Greta Gerwig. Honestly, she reminds me of every girl I ever found genuinely attractive in the '80's; she's witty, goofy, mercilessly pretty, she smokes, and she's got a foul mouth. She's also believably loyal to and protective of Samantha, in that wonderful chick way. Gerwig brings much-needed comic relief to the film early on, but has shockingly-little screen time. I know, it works in the context of the movie, but I really wanted to see more of these two characters interacting with one another. So Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov as Mr. and Mrs. Ulman are like the ultimate subtly-spooky couple. Noonan, in his black suit and cane, is a towering physical presence, until he opens his mouth and speaks in his kind and calm voice. Where Noonan is all mannerism and shadow-casting menace, Woronov is more sinister and catlike. There's a reason why these folks are "go-to" performers, folks. They simply exude their roles; performance is scarcely necessary. And A.J. Bowen as the Ulman's son (though I don't know that he's ever explicitly named as such in the script) is someone to watch. No spoilers intended, but Bowen has one particular line in the movie that absolutely chills to the bone, "Are you not the babysitter?" This man deserves accolades for this moment alone. I'm dead serious.

House of the Devil Screenshot So we've got wholly believable characters in an at least vaguely credible set of circumstances, taking place in a time when technology wasn't instantly available to "save the day". Add cinematic skill, subtle and wonderful performances, a minimalist and highly effective score by Jeff Grace, and many more "high points", and you've got a nearly perfect example of a tight horror film. So what doesn't work? Very little, but I'm dying to criticize, so I'll dig deep. In all fairness, there are a couple of moments where Ti West "cheats", showing us things that can not only not be seen by Samantha (as mentioned, hers is the chief perspective in the film), but simply wouldn't be able to be seen by any character in the movie at that moment; things behind closed doors, things out of sight. He doesn't do it often, but he does do it, but at least it's an attempt to solidify the menace of the story arc, and not simply for cheap shock value (though the offending shots are certainly shocking). As you know, I've got nothing against gore, and gore even has a place in the story here, but cheating is cheating. Whatever, like I said, I'm reaching here. Ti West himself acknowledges that he was cheating. Oh well. If that's the worst criticism I can level at The House of the Devil (and it pretty much is), then that should tell you that what we've got here is a taut, effective, and essentially flawless piece of genre filmmaking. Though some criticize the film for dashing somewhat sharply into "shock" territory in the last reel, it's earned it, so nyah.

House of the Devil Screenshot The DVD:
Once again, Dark Sky Films proves that they are at the top of their game with this exemplary release of House of the Dead. It's not labeled as a "special edition" or anything, but the relative abundance of supplements are sure to please. Featuring two highly-listenable commentary tracks (one with Jocelin Donahue and Ti West, and the other with West and various crew), a handful of interesting deleted and alternate scenes, trailers, and a pair of mini-documentary pieces, the disc offers a tidy glimpse into (relatively) low budget filmmaking. The 1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen (16x9 enhanced) image is nice, but really, the film is (intentionally) very grainy and saturated, so keep that in mind. The all-important shadows look remarkable, though. Likewise, the 5.1 Digital surround track really shows off the sterling sound design of the film. You really feel the spaces in this flick, and due in no small part to the quality sound and video presentation, it carries over quite well. All told, it's an essential piece of modern horror filmmaking, and while it might not signal the proverbial second coming of Hitchcock or anything, it does announce Ti West as one to watch. His film is too-easily dismissed as another simple homage piece, but that's really, really selling it short.

- February 23, 2011

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Five Skulls

Five Skulls