November 23, 2009

The House of the Devil

Reviewer: Craig Phillips
Rating (out of 5): ***
Ti West's 2005 horror film The Roost, his first feature, gained him some notoriety as a throwback creature feature. It foreshadowed the path he'd go down as a filmmaker -- a B horror movie with a 70s/80s visual style, a refreshing lack of gloss - but it was uneven, a bit silly, and had one ending too many. His new film The House of the Devil finds a maturing West moving through similar terrain but more assuredly. It's again a return to old school horror but there's nothing campy here; it captures the vibe without winking at the audience. This isn't Scream.

A title card tells us we're in the 80s, with ominous words about the high number of Americans who believed then in abusive Satanic Cults, and the even more ominous words that the following is based – loosely no doubt -- on real events.  Even the opening credits are done in 80s horror movie font and freeze-frame style with a slightly cheesy synth-beat music score.  And the film’s storyline is refreshingly simple: a broke co-ed applies for babysitting gig with the wrong family, and… it doesn't go well.

Jocelin Donahue is quite appealing and natural as Samantha, the archetypal role of the feisty college student thrust into a hellish situation (she was previously seen in the odd but interesting 2008 Western-horror hybrid The Burrowers).

When she decides to take the job, offered to her by the family’s soft-spoken patriarch Mr. Ulman (Tom Noonan), her friend Megan (Greta Gerwig, best known for LOL, Baghead and other indie/mumblecore-ish films) innocently warns her that "it could be a kid from hell." But she doesn’t know the half of it. And oh by the way, there's actually no kid. That's about when most people would try to flee, but Ulman comes off as so sympathetic and persuasive (and she's desperate for money) that, well, what the hell...

And of course the Ulman's house just has to be quite a ways outside of town, surrounded by Blair Witch-ish woods. And the gig just has to coincide with a lunar eclipse, which hits, of course, at midnight, making everything even darker. There aren’t any werewolves in this movie, but there is a cameo by Dee Wallace, of Cujo and The Howling fame, as a landlady who seems in a suspicious hurry to rent out a place to Samantha. That plot thread, by the way, seemed a bit of a red herring – West sets it up to make you think the film will unfold in the creepy house that Samantha decides to rent, but instead we never return there. While this could’ve just been sloppy storytelling, I’m inclined to think it was with a purpose, and to also foreshadow Samantha’s own fate. It wouldn’t behoove me to reveal more of the plot, but West’s more interested in setting mood and tone, and to shock in random bursts rather than as a steady machine-gun fire. House of the Devil builds slowly, perhaps too much so for those used to non-stop action of many recent horror films, except those films often don't take the time to build tension or character. A couple of early scenes do drag on in pacing a bit, but as one scene hooks on the next the effect is chilling. The jolts, when they happen, are all the more heart-stopping, and the third act is particularly shocking in how quickly it transpires. I think the climax may even feel too rushed to some but I think it’s all the more jarring for how it unfolds. In some ways the film could use another twist or two to it before it's all over, but the simplicity of it is part of its spell. West knows all the conventions of the genre, the expectations of the set up, and plays with them. And the final shot could be just at home in Argento’s Phenomena, with Donahue a sub for Jennifer Connelly. The effectively, understated music score is composed by Jeff Grace, who also did West's The Roost and the underrated chiller The Last Winter.

Tom Noonan, who played a TV horror show host who introduces the story in The Roost, and who looks more and more like the man in Grant Wood's American Gothic, is perfectly cast as the soft-spoken Ulman. His wife is played by cult favorite actress Mary Woronov, a frequent lead in many a Paul Bartel movie (and Principal Togar in Rock N Roll High School) adds a level of gothic creep to her part, looking a bit like an older version of Karen Black from Burnt Offerings (a 1976 film with which this film shares a certain amount of trappings).

One of film's precautionary morals may be: Be careful who you order pizza from. Don't get the one with mushrooms!

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Posted by cphillips at November 23, 2009 11:50 AM

Even though Ti West and I appear to have opposite taste in films, I really appreciate the sincerity he brings to his work.

Posted by: Erin Donovan at November 23, 2009 11:31 PM
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