The House of the Devil (2009)
Director: Ti West
If the influence of Quentin Taraninto and Robert Rodriguez films are any indication, it's trendy to make faux-retro films and cater to the audience's nostalgia for grindhouse or 80s horror cinema. I've seen too many indie films throw on a fake film grain or digital scratch marks to pass off their films as "cool" and "old school." Although Ti West indeed designed The House of the Devil to make it look like it was filmed in the early to mid-1980s, he does something very different. He creates a retro style with sincerity that serves the story. Unlike Rob Zombie, who jacks up his movies with retro-imagery to fill in the holes left by the plot, The House of the Devil embraces its 80s style as an integral part of the horror experience. As a result, it delivers an atmospheric slow burn of suspense and dread that ignites in the third act into a full-blown hellish nightmare. Lauded for its attention to period detail, The House of the Devil is a brilliant example of horror suspense in its own right.
It's the 1980s. Samantha (Joceline Donahue ) is a college sophomore struggling to make ends meet. With little more than $87 dollars in her bank account, she's managed to secure a nice one-room apartment in a house to get away from her annoying dorm roommate. Unfortunately, Samantha can't make the first month's rent. As a result, she answers an anonymous ad for a babysitter job posted by the disquietingly awkward Mr. Ullman (Tom Noonan). It seems Ullman and his wife (genre regular Mary Woronov) have some very urgent plans that night -- the night of a lunar eclipse. They're desperate to find someone to hire and pay hundreds of dollars to stay at their large rural mansion....all alone. Something is clearly amiss, and it's not long before Samantha finds out she's stumbled into something truly and unspeakably evil.
IS IT SHOCKING
The House of the Devil is refreshingly not a nihilistic gore-fest. Relying on zooms, long shots, and long takes that immerse the audience in every detail of the environment, the film's scares come from an impending sense of doom and palpable unease that creeps into the film early on and slowly, like a covert python, encircles the lovely and completely lovable Samantha.
She reminds me of a younger and prettier
Margot Kidder from her Black Christmas days
Margot Kidder from her Black Christmas days
So, while there isn't a lot of gore or jump scares, when there is gore and when there are scares they are more effective due to the heightened tension that the film builds. Sometimes the long takes can slow the film down, but for the most part they are an indispensable part of the film's horror. It is so incredibly refreshing to see a horror film actually attempt to craft tension and atmosphere. In modern films we are accustomed to rapid-fire cuts and MTV style montages, but it is difficult to invest yourself in the film. We don't live in a music video. What Ti West, his DP, and his cinematographer manage to do, however, is immerse the audience in Samantha's material world. Because you become a part of that world, you feel the horror tenfold. There was one scene that literally made my jaw drop. However, I've seen the same type of scene before in modern splatter films, yet this one shocked me because extreme violence is so rare in The House of the Devil. The House of the Devil gets back to the basics. It shocks the viewer with its more-is-less attitude.
IS IT SURREAL?
It's not until the third act of the film that much of the overt horror takes place. When it does take place, we're not spoon fed an explanation for what is occurring. If you're at all familiar with films from this genre, however, you'll quickly understand what's about to happen, but no character stands up and, like a James Bond super villain, explains to Samantha exactly what's in store for her. Yet, even if you are not familiar with this genre, there is enough surreal abstracted imagery to make clear what horrors Samantha can look forward to.
Babysitters: Do not work for this man.--------
The House of the Devil has a great cast and a simple story told more tensely and effectively than many mainstream horror films. It manages to really feel like a film from the 1980s without relying on its style as a gimmick.
If this review has been lighter on details and flippancy than usual, it's because I don't want to spoil any part of this movie. I know it has been available for some time, but I went into it knowing little more than the premise. If you haven't checked out The House of the Devil and are craving suspense, check it out.
The House of the Devil may be a throwback, but it's not a throw-away film.