17 February 2010

The House of the Devil

Jocelin Donahue, Tom Noonan, Mary Woronov,
Writer & Director:
Ti West
30 October 2009
Studio, Running Time, Rating:
Glass Eye Pix, 95 mins., Rated R

Once Freddy in Space gushed about The House of the Devil, I knew I'd end up seeing it one way or another (aka, I like his reviews). A throwback to the 1980's horror films, what with the slow build-up, the bagillions of film roll used on just shooting a girl walking around a house saying 'Hello?', ugly hair, and deliberate avoidance of spiffy visual effects, The House of the Devil does indeed match the hype that's been circulating around it. However, it does have one single unfortunate quality about the film, and it's the same frustration Johnny had...but I'll get to that in a minute.

Before I get into the nitty gritty, just wanted to mention a cool bit of marketing that went behind this production. First, it was treated with two really retro posters - the one that accompanies the DVD & Blu-Ray, and the one I assume was theatrically released, which just screams vintage. Secondly, before the DVD/Blu-Ray release of the title early February, the studio released a VHS copy of the movie (!!!). VH-friggin'S! The last VHS I recall being manufactured was in 2005, and it was David Cronenberg's A History of Violence. I didn't pick this little gem up, but I can only assume this 2009 movie that looks and feels like a 1980's production only further solidifies its retro feel on VHS. Darn the lucky buggers who bought one.

Samantha Hughes needs money pronto. She's eyeing a one-bedroom apartment and needs the dough to put towards a down payment, and I'm sure college is a bit hefty in the price arena. Ever so lucky, a flyer for a babysitting gig is put up at school, and she snatches at it. Turns out the babysitting is much less the sitting of a baby as much as it is making sure a elderly woman is A-OK in this rather desolate mansion in the middle of nowhere. The night turns from boring to freaky, and it all culminates in blood on a full moon.

Notes & Reflections
It's always the damn babysitting gig that gets girls in trouble. Famously used in John Carpenter's 1978 production Halloween, it was a perfect device to get Laurie Strode separated from her friends (which were picked off one by one), and eventually confronted by The Shape. And that's a movie that still holds up to today's viewings! More examples aren't circulating around my head right now, but it's a common plot set-up. The getting Samantha to the house is just a device, the real meat is as the night progresses.

The eerie lack of sound. The lack of anything living in the vicinity. The freakiness of the house and the many doors. Plus the freakiness of the old man who hired her, Mr. Ulman, is unparalleled; he's freaky, but somehow charming at the same time. All of this is exceptionally well presented in a tightly edited, well paced, beautifully acted film that ups the suspense with each walk down a hall or opening of a random door. Plus there are some genuine freak-out moments, which is hard to come by these days. The unexpected murder of a character nearly made me jump, and the quick flashes of a demented figure that tortures Samantha's mind is similarly chilling.

The set design, costume design, hair design, and even the use of 16mm film all come together to make a horror flick that seemed to have come right out from the '80's. Harsh, dark tones, stupid hairdos, a lot of walking and butt shots, weird old people...it's all present here, and it's all excellent.

And then the ending came. It's a average length production, and 90% of it is all build-up. The unfortunate part is that the conclusion, which comes at a break-neck pace once started, doesn't pay-off the ginormous suspenseful lead-up. What happens is spine-tingling freaky, a little awesome when Samantha fights back, and then a freaky, sorta dumb but also smart twist in the final seconds. All in all, it lasts about 8 minutes. I guess I would have liked something a little...more? Or am I becoming infected by Hollywood's need of more, more, MORE!!!? Perhaps this is a suitable ending, and fits the production and I'm just spoiled...

The House of the Devil isn't a movie with a serial killer stalking and chasing after a babysitter; it doesn't have massive amount of plot or scares to pad the 75 minutes before the 'All Hell Breaks Loose' moment. What it does is that it takes a relatively creepy house, douses it in darkness, and sticks a wonderful actress that seems to have been plucked from the '80's and unfortunately tossed in this sucky situation, and let's the camera rolls. If that sounds appealing, Devil is for you. If on the other hand, you're looking for Saw level of grotesque bloodshed and drug-induced craziness, look elsewhere.

I will close by saying that I'm not a fan of the original Cabin Fever, but with Ti West behind Cabin Fever 2, I might get give it a chance. I got faith in the guy.

Awesome Scene of Awesomeness (Spoilers)
Samantha is bound to the wooden ground, sacrificial ritual style. Nah, she ain't gonna take any of this. She kicks and screams, and finally gets free and runs for her life. Except she ain't leavin' without some knifin'.

Final Veridiction
A unfortunate but tolerable anti-climatic conclusion to a well-built up 1980's horror throwback knocks off a few marks in the lovin' department, but overall, The House of the Devil is a very well put together movie, with some brilliant casting and excellent editing that keeps the viewers engaged as the minutes roll on. Definitely recommend for folks who want to re-experience the time when horror movies had a little important element in them called suspense, because this baby's got 'em in spades. Or for people who want to get their Satanic groove on and are looking for inspiration (although not recommended).


Castor said...

I'm so tired of Saw-like movies, I like the retro-look of this and will give it a chance one of these days. Good review!

A.P. Simon said...

Hallelujah, Castor. I don't mind the SAW movies as much; they DO have a heavy amount of gore, but compared to...say, HOSTEL or FEAST - it's a ABC Family film. And the nice thing about the SAW franchise is, at the very least, the writers ATTEMPT to craft some sort of story, whether it be brilliant or convoluted...they still get props for attempting.

HOUSE OF THE DEVIL gets right back down to basics, and is one of the few that actually exists as a homage film instead of being a HD 2009 film with deliberate grain and writing working as their 'homage.' So, I think you'd like it.

Thanks for reading, and your blog is pretty damn cool, mate!