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Entries in House of the Devil/The [2009] (1)

Tuesday
Feb162010

The House of the Devil (2009)

Who Watches the Walkman?

Writer/director Ti West’s latest film, The House of the Devil, is a wonderfully creepy and effective thriller that is very difficult to recommend. It is so sparse and uneventful, that I can easily understand why some might turn it off halfway through. Though, to do so would be to miss out on a movie that is as much about its production design and atmosphere as it is about scaring the audience—probably more so.

The House of the Devil stars Jocelin Donahue as Samantha, a college student in need of money for the down payment on a new rental home. She takes a babysitting job in a big, scary house out in the middle of nowhere; the house is owned by the Ulmans (Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov) an older couple who come off as rich and aloof , but nice in the way that uses sympathy to mask duplicity and manipulation. The only minor spoiler I’ll mention is that Sam’s job doesn’t involve watching a child, but rather Mrs. Ulman’s mother who, she is told, she probably won’t even see.

I’ve left a number of key elements out here. It would be wrong to go into further detail, and it’s best to approach this movie fresh. I will say that, with the exception of one scene—and you’ll know right away what it is—the first hour-and-ten-minutes of The House of the Devil is very leisurely. There are a lot of conversations, characters waiting around, and scenes of Sam exploring the Ulman’s house. What West does with his screenplay and direction is to infuse the languid pace with the small emotions of dread and uncertainty, which are more compelling and relatable than the kinds of scares one might expect from movie with this title.

As I mentioned earlier, the real story of The House of the Devil is the authenticity Ti West brings to the production. It is set in the 80s and is the purest homage to 80s horror films I’ve seen. When directors nowadays claim that they want to capture the “classic” vibe of that decade’s horror movies, that usually means ripping off the worst elements of the worst movies (namely flooding the screen with gore and breasts). West has taken a novel approach: he’s made a movie that not only looks and feels like it came out in 1983, he’s made one that refuses to pander to the lowest common denominator.

The obvious first clue is the wardrobe. Costume Designer Robin Fitzgerald and Hair Stylist Brenda Bush capture that era in fashion perfectly. Again, they don’t parody the look of the times; they re-create it with love and obsessive detail. It helps that Jocelin Donahue bears an uncanny resemblance—in some scenes—to a young Margot Kidder, whose heyday was right around the time the film is set.

Coupled with West’s choice of camera, lighting, and even the title sequences, this movie feels like it was released almost thirty years ago, rather than last Fall. It is a bit jarring to see Sam bouncing around the Ulman’s house wearing a clunky Walkman looped to her belt, but that’s a simply a matter of disbelief that, today, she could have lost a similar device at the bottom of a small purse.

Technology—or the lack of it—plays a minor but interesting role in The House of the Devil. I don’t know that West had a message for the audience, but he certainly wanted to point out how different communication is today than it was in the 80s. When Sam raves to her girlfriend about the new apartment, her friend whines that she wishes she could’ve seen it; in a 2010 movie, Sam would’ve began the conversation by scrolling through a gallery on her iPhone, and the girls likely would’ve never even looked at each other during the whole discussion. There are a number of scenes, too, where a cell phone might’ve come in handy—and it’s nice to see a film in which there isn’t some lame exposition about bad reception or someone leaving their phone behind.

I also loved that the characters in West’s screenplay talk and act like real people. Modern movies about and aimed at teenagers are crammed with bad, hip dialogue spoken by idiots; it used to be that the “smart” one survived while the horny, moronic friends perished, but it’s now harder to tell the difference. In this movie, Sam and her best friend act like young adults; they’re sassy, sure, but they talk in complete sentences and don’t call each other “bitch” all the time. Call me old-fashioned, but I like that.

The House of the Devil is not a perfect movie. The last twenty minutes are okay, but not nearly as effective as the rest of the film. Tom Noonan, who earlier on made a delicious villain, is reduced to Menacing Chasing Guy. And I think the big reveal that leads to that chase could have been handled more smoothly. However, the final shot and the last line of dialogue are great, and reminded me of the end of the novel, Fight Club.

While I am a big fan of this film, I really hope it is a one-off. The last thing I want to see is a rush of “vintage” horror movies. This was a noble experiment that succeeded, for the most part, and I think other filmmakers could take a cue from Ti West; not that they should latch onto a gimmick and see it through, but that there is still a market for intelligent, suspenseful movies that don’t insult the audience with cheap characters and cheaper scares. I would like to think that West has given us a look into the future of gripping horror movies by forcing us to re-examine the past.