(A quick aside before I begin my review. Besides my Glee essay from yesterday, you may have noticed that it’s been a while since I’ve updated this blog. Three weeks in fact. Sorry about that. After beating Grand Theft Auto V, I decided to finally buy Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. Although the Final Fantasy series has had its share of missteps these last four or five years, this game had gotten pretty good reviews so I thought I’d check it out. And it’s been a major addiction ever since. Anyways, I just wanted to assure everyone that I hadn’t abandoned this blog, and hopefully, I can try to keep updating this regularly in the future although I am also working on a new screenplay so that is taking up some of my time as well. Also, there are more or less two reasons for why I’m reviewing this particular film. It’s Halloween officially and I wanted to watch a scary movie and the main actress of the movie kept favorite tweets I made about Terrence Malick films [I’m assuming it’s related to the fact that she’s been cast in his next film, Knight of Cups]. Anyways, it was a good decision to watch it.)
What is the single thread in every quality horror film? It isn’t clever meta-humor ala the Scream franchise or Tucker & Dale vs. Evil (though that certainly helps). And it isn’t genuinely disturbing supernatural phenomena ala Paranormal Activity or The Exorcist (though once again, that certainly helps). The best horror films are the ones where the audience has a legitimate emotional stake in its heroes and heroines. If you want to elicit a visceral emotional reaction from the audience, they have to care whether someone lives or dies. Let the Right One In placed character development ahead of the horror and there are days where I think it’s safe to it’s more a coming of age tale with horror elements than a conventional horror film and The Descent delivers nearly 45 minutes of group dynamics and character development before the crawlers arrive. 2009’s indie gem The House of the Devil is steeped in that same tradition.
While The House of the Devil is clearly one of the most delightfully self-aware horror films this side of the original Scream and Cabin in the Woods, it has so much more going for it than its loving homage to the slasher/occult horror of the late 1970s and early 80s. The House of the Devil is an undeniably masterful exercise in Hitchcock-ian tension and Tobe Hooper atmosphere. In the very best sense of the word, The House of the Devil is a slow-burner and though the movie makes you wait for the pay-off, you will find yourself clinging to your blanket/pillow/significant other as the tension becomes nigh unbearable.
In the early 80s, Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) is just your average college girl. She’s looking for a new apartment (with a great one-scene turn from E.T.‘s Dee Wallace as her new land lady) because her dorm mate is constantly having loud, obnoxious sex and Samantha can’t get any work done. But, like most college students, Samantha is low on money and even after convincing her land lady to drop the deposit requirement, Samantha still doesn’t have enough money to pay her first month’s rent. And after declining an offer from her rich but smart ass best friend Megan (Greta Gerwig) to have her father help out, Samantha has one week to scrounge up some cash quick.
And, like the most evil deus ex machina imaginable, Samantha finds a flier advertising a baby-sitting job. And despite every shred of common sense saying the caller is creepy and not at all normal, Samantha and Megan drive out to the creepy Amityville Horror style house in the middle of the country side where the elderly Mr. Ulman (Tom Noonan) and Mrs. Ulman (Mary Woronov) live. And, with an unsettling urgency, Mr. Ulman reveals to Samantha that she won’t actually be babysitting a child but rather his elderly mother. And, so after the departure of Megan and the Ulman’s, Samantha settles into an evening in a home where a Satanic ritual is soon to be underway with her as the key to its success.
Some people are going to be put off by how “little” happens in The House of the Devil. The typical moments of murder, mayhem, and gore that are the bread and butter of the horror genre occur twice: once in the middle and once again at the very end. But, in the sequences before the arrival at the house, The House of the Devil makes you genuinely care about Samantha and Megan. This isn’t Kenneth Lonergan character development but there’s enough personality between Samantha and Megan that when things inevitably turn sour, it hurts.
And, then, once they get to the house itself, Ti West’s direction and ability to create suspense is superb. Like Quentin Tarantino before him, Ti West manages to simultaneously declare his love to the cheesy and borderline exploitative horror films of yesteryear while also being clearly of a different artistic league than them. By subverting, inverting, and deconstructing all of the tropes of those films, Ti West skillfully plays on and against audience expectations and pulls the audience along, scene by scene, teasing the big finish so that when it finally arrives, the audience has almost stopped breathing.
The film’s attention to period detail and the visual style of the era is impeccable. With her high-waisted jeans and feathered hair, star Jocelin Donahue looks like she just walked off the set of an old John Carpenter or Wes Craven film. She even carries around an absolutely massive Walkman to play her tapes in (which leads to one of the film’s best moments, an exuberant dance to Robert Palmer’s “One Thing Leads to Another” that is arguably one of the most tense dance scenes in film history). The movie was shot on 16mm film to add that extra layer of graininess and seediness and it even incorporates a cheesy freeze frame title card system at the very beginning. As far as classic horror authenticity goes, The House of the Devil is beyond question.
And you can’t forget the performances of the cast which are both an evocation of what has come before as well as stylistic statements in their own right. Jocelin Donahue’s performance as Samantha seems to be a twist on the classic “last girl standing” trope of horror films because she’s far more active and bad-ass than the Jamie Lee Curtis’s that preceded her, and after seeing her in this film, I’m excited for her role in Terrence Malick’s upcoming feature. And, Greta Gerwig’s turn in this predates her big break in Greenberg, and even with what little time she had on screen, she marked herself as a natural. And, it will be a while before I encounter a horror villain as creepy as Tom Noonan’s Mr. Ulman.
Horror is a dried up well and then some, and though good films have started slipping through the cracks with delightful frequency lately (even deeply flawed films like The Last Exorcism still had promise and atmosphere), it takes something special to make me remember the visceral promise and thrills the genre can offer when done right. The House of the Devil may not be a great film by non-horror standards, but as far as horror goes, it’s a magnificent accomplishment and a true breath of fresh air. If this is what director Ti West is capable of, I look forward to seeing what the rest of his filmography has to offer.
Final Score: A-