Thursday, February 04, 2010

House Of The Devil (2009, directed by Ti West)

The House Of The Devil. Really? Seriously?

That's the kind of thing that usually comes to mind when I see a title like that, with a poster like this. As a teenager, I spent many, many, many, many hours scouring the shelves of my local video stores for some delectable horror treat I hadn't seen yet. I'd seen more terrible, awful, crap horror films by the time I was sixteen than most people ever see in their entire lives. Most of them had names like House Of The Devil, and had posters like this.

Interestingly enough, this is not terrible. Not only is it not terrible, it's an interesting, awesome, suspenseful, well made, entertaining horror flick. The name and the the poster both evoke the style of the early eighties for a reason. This is a film with a deep love for those video store shelf titles, and the films which were on them. It's not a dreamy nostalgia, wink and a nod homage. It's not self aware or self referential. It's essentially a period piece, but set in the 1980's as opposed to the 1880's. This could have been right there on those shelves with those films from that period. If you were to see this film and neither enjoy or have respect for anything about this film other than this, it is almost miraculous how well they recreated so much of that time period's low budget film feeling without it being cheesy. The attention to detail deserves respect, even if you were to hate everything else about this film. The Wikipedia entry, says it was actually filmed in 16mm, which in case you're not up on your low budget film history, was what low budget film was shot on for forty years prior to the digital revolution. I'll give them credit for that, just because it's geek cool..

But there's also so much more to make this film cool. There's Tom Noonan, who is AWESOME! He showed up playing a late night horror host in West's earlier film, The Roost, and played The Tooth Fairy in the first film which featured Hannibal Lecter, Michael Mann's Manhunter. The source material was made into another film much later on, named Red Dragon, and though Ralph Fienes is a great actor, he couldn't touch Noonan's work as that character. Noonan also showed up as Frankenstein's monster in The Monster Squad and a number of other films which were pretty great. Tom Noonan can be an incredibly creepy character though, and he is great here as usual.

It has more in common with Rosemary's Baby, The Shining, The Changeling, and The Entity than it does with any of the slasher films of the last thirty years. It's a suspenseful, slow build, slow burn, of bizarrely hallucinatory discomfort. I was not expecting something of this level of talent and quality when I picked it up. I've seen The Roost, and though it definitely had some interesting and strong ideas and it was obvious there was some talent there, it didn't quite come together. I was honestly expecting something so much more like that and less accomplished than this is. This movie isn't perfect, but it is damned good, and even as I was watching it and noticing some of the flaws, I was gleefully forgiving them minutes later because of the things it does right. What this film does get right, it gets gloriously right.

I honestly don't think it's going to matter how much you know about this film ahead of time, because it's well made enough to grab you anyway. Our heroine Samantha calls a number on a flier for a babysitting job because she's trying to rent an apartment and needs the down payment in short order. Upon going out to the house, things aren't quite what they seem, and even though it is a strange situation, and the people are somewhat strange, she agrees. They're weird because they're a satanic cult (a very eighties idea). I thought for one second in this movie, "You know, satanic cults are just too silly to be scary", and thirty seconds later, I was squirming in my seat.

If you were in a coma or were possibly too young to remember it, Satanic cults were the big thing to be afraid of in the eighties. Communism had just crashed, and culturally, Americans have had a big bad to face since the inception of our nation and distinct culture, so a big part of the population fixated on Satanic cults in the absence of commie's. Geraldo Rivera's day time talk show (an early precursor to Jerry Springer) was doing shows on Satanic cults, Donahue was doing shows on them, Inside Edition and Current Affair were running "stories" on them. Everywhere satanic cults were coming to get you or hiding behind the curtain waiting for you to stumble on them. Remember as well, these were the times when bands were being attacked for their music having satanic messages (even if you had to play it backwards to find it) and convincing kids to commit suicide. It couldn't have been the empty promise of a future void of meaning other than soulless consumption that the adults of the decadent eighties were exemplifying or the fact that it was the first decade in which the drive for financial success finally trumped everything else, including raising a family or finding something to do with your life that was useful in any way other than adding zero's to your net worth. . It couldn't have been the first salvo's of a culture war in which one side would attempt to convince said kids that every impulse to do anything their in group didn't approve meant they were evil, less than human and needed to be cleansed. No, it definitely wasn't any of those things.  It was definitely Satanic cults hiding in every corner of society. All joking aside, Satanic cults were practically a national obsession for a while.

It's incredible how good this film looks considering that it was shot on Super 16mm. The color palette is so perfect for the time period, it's almost eerie. Not only is the photography composed very well, there are a few shots and one or two sequences which are pretty amazing. A good deal of this film rested on the way it was going to look, because it takes place during the eighties and really is an eighties film, and because of the tone of the film. Because it is very much a suspense film, it needed to be visually interesting enough to hold people's attention, because it does have that kind of slow build, Hitchcockian suspense.

The score is also something which needs to be commended, because again, it is perfectly done for this kind of film. It's not over bearing and it's not invisible either. It is creepy without being over the top, and music is so important to a horror film like this, you can't really over estimate it.

I do have to be honest in saying I don't actually know what to make of the performance from the lead. I think I'd have a better handle on this after seeing it again. My impression while watching it was that some of the work by Joceline Donahue, was somewhat wooden. But, after having seen the film through to the end, I don't know if that was because her character is just not very interesting in the beginning of the film (especially because she's the "straight" man to supporting actress Greta Gerwig, whose character is much more fun, and whom  I've seen put in great performances in a few other interesting indie films). I also think that even if her performance is kind of poor, it doesn't hurt the movie at all. This is a film which depends on atmosphere, and if you're ever seen a film which has performances or a performance which is just ever so slightly wooden or sub par, you know it produces a kind of uneasy feeling. Now if it's just in your face terrible, you just laugh at it, but if it's just slightly off, you don't necessarily zero in on it, but you notice something isn't right, and in this film, because of the way it's constructed and the way it approaches it's story and character, that would actually be good for the film, overall. After this single viewing, I can't tell if it was just poor acting or if it's something intentional because of the structure of the film and how the director wanted the character played.

I can recommend this film to people who enjoy the older films like Rosemary's Baby, The Entity, The Changeling and so on. I can also recommend this film to people who generally like horror films. I can't recommend this if you're strictly a gorehound. It might be too slow for you, and it might take itself a little too seriously for you. If you are going to pick up a copy of The House Of The Devil on DVD or Blu Ray, make sure you watch it in a darkened room and try to watch it straight through, beginning to end. This film would probably be hurt by too much playing around with your pause button.

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