The House of the Devil (2009)

1 Oct

Shouldn't she be ... oh, I don't know ... less pretty at this point, or something?

The House of the Devil” was an inspired choice for starting off my 31 Nights of Horror experiment. There aren’t too many flicks like this one out there these days — not new flicks anyway — and this movie, while imperfect, hits just the right nostalgic notes for longtime horror fans.

The film opens with Samantha Hughes (Jocelin Donahue) searching for an apartment. She finds something that will work, but she needs $300 for a deposit. Desperate for cash, she agrees to a “babysitting” job that turns out to be more than she’d bargained for. Telling her friend (and ride — of course she has no car) Megan (Greta Gerwig) she’ll be fine despite the sketchy circumstances, Sam braves up for the four-hour gig. She initially writes off her growing anxiety as mere nerves, but those “house-settling noises” keep getting louder and louder, and the clock keeps inching ever closer to midnight…

And if all this seems like familiar territory, it’s because it is. “The House of the Devil” doesn’t win any points for originality. Rather, its fun comes from the careful construction of the film as an artifact from another era. The film is set sometime in the mid-1980s, so of course you expect the hair to be feathered, the phones to be rotary and the Walkman to be huge. But director/writer/editor Ti West goes one further and styles the entire film as if it came from that time period. Everything from the outdated opening sequence — complete with freeze-frames accompanying the opening credits — to the camera angles themselves scream 80s teen slasher flick.

For a horror fan, this sort of nostalgia is welcome. West shot on actual 16mm film, so the movie has that grainy look of low-budget slasher flick. The camerawork is purposefully low-tech, without much movement beyond some zooming in and out, which also maintains that illusion of a movie from another time. Even the background music feels right for that era. As strange as it is to think of, this is a film that never breaks character. It’s a gamble on the part of the filmmakers, but it’s one that pays off since the homage is friendly and measured instead of going over-the-top 80s. If “The House of the Devil” had veered into “Wedding Singer” territory, it simply wouldn’t have worked.

Of course nothing bad could ever happen to you here, right?

In addition to the goodwill fostered through its smart nostalgia, the film’s taut storyline which makes the most of its setting and budget. A solid story being, of course, in marked contrast to most of the teen scream slasher genre — otherwise you’d just watch “Sleepaway Camp” or something and be done with it. The wonderful thing about this movie is that you’re getting all the feel of a traditional slasher flick with a better story and smarter direction. Suspense builds slowly through long menacing shots, creepy noises and the nervy paranoia of the main character. In films like these, what a viewer imagines is nearly always worse than what is actually in store, and West wisely lets the audience spin its own ideas as long as he can.

Donahue really gives a standout performance as the besieged Samantha. It’s a strange role — she’s the lone teenager in a creepy house, which doesn’t give her anyone to play off for wide swaths of the movie. A lot of her emotions play out on her face without the benefit of letting lines do all the work. In her hands, Samantha comes off as very realistic and believable (and mercifully not annoying, again unlike many films of this ilk). Support work is solid from Gerwig and from Tom Noonan and cult queen Mary Woronov (“Silent Night, Bloody Night”) as Mr. and Mrs. Ullman. But it’s really Donahue’s movie to wreck or save, and she clearly saves it.

“The House of the Devil” is not without its imperfections, however. I feel the movie tips its hand a little too early, and there are some definite pacing issues. It’s meant to be a slow burning movie — and I love that aspect of it — which makes some of the plot progression confusing. What’s worse is that a few of these issues seem obviously easy to fix, and I can’t help but wonder why they weren’t. The declining action also leaves a bit to be desired. It’s not a movie that’s out to hit you with anything particularly shocking, but it does sort of feel like it runs out of gas during the declining action.

In fact, were “The House of the Devil” able to follow through on all the delicious tension it builds instead of descending into cliche, I think the style of the film would matter much less. As it is, the retro flavor helps this movie a lot. The charm of the era — the emphasis on suspense and the subtle differences in theme — make what should feel like a retread seem fresh, and genre fans could come over all misty reminisce-y by the end. Two-and-a-half stars out of four.

The House of the Devil“: Rated R. Starring Jocelin Donahue, Tom Noonan, Mary Woronov, Greta Gerwig, AJ Bowen and Dee Wallace. Directed, written and edited by Ti West. Cinematography by Eliot Rockett. Original music by Jeff Grace.

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2 Responses to “The House of the Devil (2009)”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. The Signal (2007) « Rhanda watches - October 26, 2010

    […] his torture of various cast members. Bowen turned in a nice, creepy little performance in “The House of the Devil,” and I was pleased to see him show up here, again in a deliciously villainous role. For their […]

  2. Sleepaway Camp (1983) « Rhanda watches - November 22, 2010

    […] started the month of October with a review of “The House of the Devil,” a new film aiming to resurrect the feel of a 1980s horror heyday movie. It’s fitting, […]

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