Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The House of the Devil

The House of the Devil, the new horror film written, edited and directed by Ti West, is all about the slow build. Those seeking wall-to-wall violence will most likely be very disappointed. This is about ramping up the tension for as long as possible before unleashing the intensity.

Jocelin Donahue plays Samantha, a college sophomore who just landed a room in an off-campus house. Only problem is, she's dealing with some money problems and has to come up with $300 for rent by next week. While contemplating her money woes, Samantha sees flyer on a bulletin board on campus that says "Baby $itter Needed."

When she meets Mr. Ulman, the soft-spoken, well-dressed, yet ultra creepy man who posted the flyer (played by the always awesome Tom Noonan), he confesses that it's not a child she'll be attending to, but his mother. Although this throws Samantha for a loop, and her best friend, Megan (Greta Gerwig), tells her to walk away, Mr. Ulman offers her $400 to stay in the house until midnight. How can she refuse?

Aside from the fact that, you know, he and his wife (Mrs. Ulman, played by Mary Woronov) creep her the hell out, the house is in the middle of nowhere, and that Samantha doesn't have a car. She needs the money and is unaware that she's a character in a horror film, so we'll cut her some slack for accepting the gig.

The opening title cards about Satanic worship in America in the '80s (as well as, well, the title itself) lets you know this couple isn't who they say they are and aren't to be trusted, which adds to the tension and suspense all the more. We know right out of the gate they're up to no good and have sinister intentions with Samantha, so we're stuck waiting with bated breath for the proverbial shoe to drop as Samantha bides her time in the giant house with no sign of this mother she has to tend to.

And yes: the audience's patience is rewarded. The shoe definitely drops. Oh, boy, does it drop.

The House of the Devil takes place in 1982, but more than that: it looks like it was made in the early '80s, with the scratchy and faded film print, dated opening titles and corresponding freeze-framed shots. Plus, the characters look like they're living in 1982, as opposed to attending an '80s-themed costume party.

Another thing that's impressive about The House of the Devil is that West uses many tropes of early-80s horror films - babysitters in peril, a creepy and presumably empty mansion, Satanic worship - without relying on clich├ęs or cheap "gotcha" moments. In fact, the two times I jumped in the first half of the movie were moments when things actually happened (rather than, say, someone being startled by a cat; speaking of which, there is no cat in this movie, I'm happy to say).

West and Donahue succeed in making Samantha a likable, sympathetic and believable heroine, not a bird-brained coed. She's a character, not an archetype. In fact, the acting across the board is top shelf and grounds the film in reality.

Is this movie groundbreaking? Of course not. Is it an exceptional technical exercise? Perhaps. (Although I'd say the above-mentioned acting and believability of Samantha makes this more than just a technical exercise.) But considering the current wave of new horror films being released are about ratcheting up the body count and gore with no consideration for suspense, it's admirable and refreshing to see a new horror film that's all about showing restraint for as long as possible before letting all hell break loose.

Not eating the pizza,

James "Lunar Eclipse Fanatic" Comtois

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Blogger joshcon80 said...

Is it my birthday already? This movie sounds like it was made just for me. 1982 satanism? Mary Woronov? Count me in! I have to see this toot sweet.

1:21 PM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

I think it really was made just for you. Definitely check it out.

1:23 PM  
Blogger DPS said...

Interesting. I just read another review about this flick about a week ago and thought, "I should check that out." Then it shows up here.

In other news, you should check this out: a horror short that won the 2008 Fantastic Fest best horror short. Feels aesthetically similar to "evermore". (Glad I didn't see it before I made "evermore", though.)


2:00 PM  
Blogger Nat said...

I'm so excited to see this--the trailer kinda reminds me of "Burnt Offerings" in all the right ways.

7:18 PM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

Oh, absolutely. I was thinking the same thing when watching it. The two movies are radically different but they share that similar plot point (the elusive mother somewhere up on the top floor).

9:06 PM  

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