Wednesday, April 21, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The House of the Devil (2009)

While many terrific horror movies have been released in the last few years (especially in 2009), only a select few have achieved greatness in the impressive fashion of Ti West's The House of the Devil (2009).

Because West wrote, directed, and most importantly, edited the piece, the film evidences a real sense of unity in terms of presentation. The cumulative effect is, in a word, powerful.

The House of the Devil is a throwback to an older genre aesthetic, one in which a sort of free-floating, generalized sense of anxiety is generated and escalated through modest, subtle means. The aura of terror arises from periods of silence, a minimum of dialogue and adept film-grammar-styled compositions. In the tradition of all great genre efforts, the movie's stylish shape also reflects the film's narrative.

Specifically, The House of the Devil is set in the early 1980s, around the time that paranoia about "Satanic Ritual Abuse" overtook the nation's middle-class. This strange fear might have been due to the rising influence of fundamentalist Christians in the Reagan Era, and their belief (still held today, vis-a-vis President Obama) that anything not born of the extreme right-wing is the work of the Devil.

Or the paranoia about Satanists in our midst could have been the result of collective parental guilt and shame over the fact that -- in the yuppie era of upward mobility and two-income households -- it was deemed necessary to outsource child-care to day-cares, nannies and other "interlopers." After entrusting their children to strangers all day, parents -- when faced with changes in their little darlings, --may have found it easier to charge "Satanism" than look in the mirror.

The F.B.I investigated the strange charges of Satanic Ritual Abuse and never found substantial evidence that worship of the Devil was involved even in a fraction of cases where it was raised. The House of the Devil, however, trenchantly utilizes this context as a springboard for its tale. It offers some brief information about SRA in its opening title card, which feels reminiscent of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Return of the Living Dead (1985) and other genre classics.

But the undercurrent or vibe established so brilliantly and thoroughly by West in The House of the Devil is that there is something wrong...or off with the world at large as presented in the film. The source of this problem may not be easily pinpointed (especially at first...), but lurks just out-of-sight, slightly beyond our perception.

One of the ways that West forges this "free form," generalized sense-of-anxiety is to deny the audience a sense of visual comfort from the very first shot. As the movie opens, West's camera captures a long-shot of a figure, but one seen only from the back. She is also some distance from us -- through a door-frame -- and we get no details. In other words, her face is withheld from us for an abnormally-long spell, and the effect, visually, is to unsettle us. The camera zooms in, but still reveals no additional details.

It turns out that this is Samantha (Jocelin Donahue), our college-age heroine. And she's not doing anything suspicious here, merely admiring the interior of an apartment that she hopes to rent. But how the camera views Samantha begins to make us feel uncomfortable. For one thing, her space in the frame is limited by the surrounding "box" of the door-frame. And indeed, this is a set-up that West frequently repeats; cutting off Samantha's available space in the wide-screen frame.

The free-floating anxiety the audience feels grows deeper as it observes apparently mundane details of Samantha's life. She needs money desperately if she is to rent the apartment she desires. She can't get back into her dorm-room (her roommate is having loud sex..). She waits all morning on campus for a man who doesn't show-up; a would-be-employer seeking a baby-sitter. Her friend, Meghan, does something unethical, and that Samantha feels reflects poorly upon her. The pepperoni pizza at the local dive doesn't taste good today.

Again, not one bit of this material is earth-shattering or overtly horrific in and of itself. Instead, as the soundtrack suggests -- to the lyrics of The Fixx -- "One Thing Leads to Another."

The movie thus makes us acutely aware of how each little step that Samantha takes brings her closer to the precipice; closer to her reckoning with terror; closer to her "destiny" that she is asked to accept. Specifically, Samantha takes a babysitting job at 7714 East Beaumont -- way out in the woods -- and then is confronted with further...discomfort.

Her would-be employer, Mr. Ulman (Tom Noonan) is a liar. There's no child to "sit," only an old woman locked away in an upstairs bedroom, and this makes Samantha (and the audience) uncomfortable too. This man isn't trustworthy in the slightest but Samantha feels put-upon and he keeps throwing money at her (400 dollars for four hours work). Eventually, an uncomfortable Samantha acquiesces to take the job. On the night of a total lunar eclipse, no less.

Once alone in the old, spooky, Victorian house, the camera's views of Samantha through a door-frame recur repeatedly, symbolically cordoning off her free space in the frame. One long-lasting but utterly still shot even establishes the parameters of Samantha's "safe zone." We stay in the room -- the camera unmoving -- as Samantha starts to probe out, deeper and deeper into the quiet, dark house.

And then more discomfort comes. While dancing on the staircase (wearing her Walkman), Samantha accidentally breaks a valuable vase...and then finds evidence that her employers were lying about something important...

Most of The House of the Devil is over before Satanism overtly enters the proceedings...and West truly provides one of the great set-ups in horror movie history here, assiduously ratcheting up anxiety along the way. When Samantha finally finds her way to the attic -- where she observes a light on under the crack of a closed door -- you'll find yourself perched on the edge of your seat. Through an unforced but deliberate pace and a canny sense of visualization, West thus brings the audience to throat-clutching terror. The House of the Devil is patient. It creeps up on you. It knowingly and methodically pulls down your defenses until you are absolute putty in West's hands.

West has a great eye for detail too. The film is set in the early 1980s, and the period detail is perfect, from the Sony Walkman to the Isotoner gloves to the rotary phones. Even better, the lead actresses actually seem to belong to this era. They aren't simply playing dress-up.
Donahue, in particular, gives a fantastic, internally-driven performance. We sympathize with her as Samantha's day goes from bad to -- uh -- really, really bad.

If The House of the Devil fails to please in any sense, it is simply that -- after the exquisite and terrifying build-up -- the film's resolution comes a hair too quickly. But this is indeed a minor quibble in what is frankly one of the finest, most-carefully-crafted new horror movies I've seen in sometime. I especially appreciate the fact that West opted to tell his story straight, with no self-referential humor or easy jokes to leaven the mood of unease. This movie is practically a machine built to scare you and there's never a moment where you get to breathe because the director releases you with a laugh; finding a moment outside the confines of the narrative. Even a TV clip (on "Frightmare Theater") of Romero's Night of the Living Dead isn't used as jokey allusion, but suggests a deeper narrative purpose. Samantha's daylight existence has been -- step by step -- literally "eclipsed" by evil and darkness. From the light of the moon outside, to the TV inside...horror bleeds in.

Ti West's name has been bandied about a lot in the blogosphere of late, and now I understand why. The House of the Devil is a modern genre masterpiece of mood and escalating terror. My only recommendation to West is this: as he grows more established and powerful within the movie industry, he should negotiate to be his own editor. This is important. The House of the Devil looks and feels like the individual work of a unique artist -- an early Romero or Carpenter picture, even -- and that's largely due to the careful, accomplished editing. I hope West doesn't accept any Faustian bargains for big budgets, because The House of the Devil proves that -- left to his own devices -- he's already got all the right moves.


  1. Great write-up, I agree 100% that West has the art of build-up mastered here.

  2. Sounds great! I've had this title in the back of my mind for a while and now will rush out to rent it. Sounds somewhat in the vein of "Let's Scare Jessica to Death," which I also enjoyed on your recommendation.

  3. I found House of the Devil really predictable, personally, and still don't understand the admiration for it. I expected something with a very 80s feel, but it felt more mid-70's to me. I actually enjoyed Cabin Fever 2, which West distances himself from, more than this one.

  4. Thanks for the comments everybody.

    Mike: Yes, the build-up is the crux here -- it's gloriously vetted in terms of film-style. Fantastic stuff.

    Steve: I think you'll enjoy this, especially since you liked Let's Scare Jessica to Death another mood piece.

    Slasherfan: Sorry you didn't like The House of the Devil. To each his own, of course. We all have our own personal tastes.

    For me, the matter of import is not really the predictability or unpredictability of the narrative, it's the "how" of the narrative; the fashion in which West utilizes visuals to create that sustained sense of free-floating anxiety and tension. I haven't seen Cabin Fever 2 yet, but I will...


  5. Certainly! I definitely think the film was made in a skilled manner, but it just really didn't pull me in at all. It reminded me a lot of Babysitter Wanted, and that might have affected my opinion as well.

  6. I'm looking forward to seeing this. I liked the moodiness of his debut "The Roost" though it wasn't quite what it seemed to want to be (the framing device, starring Noonan again, was easily the best part). Still, it's great to see a filmmaker so determined to work against the prevailing horror styles and focus on atmosphere and tone.

  7. Hi Slasherfan and DLR:

    Slasherfan: I need to see Babysitter Wanted now. Thanks for pointing out that title.

    DLR: I have not seen "The Roost" but after House of the Devil, I am definitely curious about Ti West's other films.


  8. Glad you go to check it out. Some nice observations. That walkman scene kills me. I can't believe I haven't rewatched it yet, but there is other stuff I've been meaning to see. Anyway, it's easily one of my favorite little films of last year. I actually watched it on that VHS copy. Really added to my fun and the retro experience. It's pan and scan! What's not to love?

  9. I too heard much about Ti West before viewing this film. I appreciate filmmakers who attempt to re-create the feel of past eras because it shows a knowledge of films that emphasized atmosphere and slow builds. Others told me this was reminiscent of 'The Changeling' and 'Burnt Offerings'.

    I liked this film...I just wanted to like it more. I think West missed opportunities to rachet up the sense of foreboding during long stretches of film where literally nothing was happening. Solid horror vehicle, pacing was just a little too slow at times, took me out of the moment. But I do look forward to future films by this filmmaker.