Fantastic Fest 2009: House of the Devil

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The House of the Devil is at heart an exercise in tension, and West and Donahue deserve serious credit for stringing the audience along while revealing little of the horror to come.

House Of The Devil

Directed by Ti West

I can’t yet speak to Ti West’s 21st century output, but with The House of the Devil West has proven he is a master when it comes to retro midnight movies.  Actors excepted, Devil could very easily be a lost relic of the late 70s/early 80s horror canon.  West nails the look, pacing, characters, and fun of the era’s films, and while you can argue all day about the merits of nostalgic filmmaking, House‘s commitment to atmosphere and character deserves high regard.  In an age where suspense is seriously undervalued, Ti West made a film that pulses with it.  The House of the Devil isn’t necessarily the best horror film of 2009, but it may wind up being my personal favorite.

Strapped for cash, but committed to moving out of her terrible living situation, Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) answers a baby-sitter wanted ad to pick up some extra cash. When she arrives at the remote household of her employers, the Ulmans, that night, Mr. Ulman (Tom Noonan) admits that the sitting is actually for his mother, and offers Samantha a dramatic pay raise to convince her to stay.  Ready to move into the perfect new home she can’t afford, Samantha takes the job despite her best friend’s hesitance and Tom Noonan’s obvious eccentricity.  Coincidentally, there just so happens to be a full lunar eclipse that very night.

rgb-house-of-the-devil_still31In nearly every frame and oftentimes alone, Jocelin Donahue carries the film. She imbues Catherine with accessible human qualities. creating a believable and sympathetic protagonist.  The role of her friend, Megan, is embodied by mumblecore sensation Greta Gerwig, who proves capable and funny in this relatively non-mumbly role.  There’s some fine acting between the two of them, and the friendship here is much more believable than in many of the films House is imitating.  Tom Noonan’s Mr. Ulman is a great villain, who, despite his satanist tendencies and inexcusable dishonesty, never ceases acting a gentleman.  Mary Woronov is also a joy as Mrs. Ulman.

The House of the Devil is at heart an exercise in tension, and West and Donahue deserve serious credit for stringing the audience along while revealing little of the horror to come.  Relying only on that universal fear of the dark, Noonan’s uncomfortable presence, and the night eclipse, the film picks up momentum while fleshing out Samantha’s character. Once alone in the Ulman’s house, Samantha’s whole sequence of exploration is so recognizable that West actually draws quite a few knowing laughs out of it.  The climax of the film, while exciting and well earned, unfortunately feels too slight and is the one thing keeping this from a retroactive crowning as an 80s classic.

houseofthedevil_still2_cmykYou can download this film right now from Amazon, but if you have a chance, I’d recommend you see it in a theater. House is a welcome reminder that horror flicks can be creepy without being gruesome and good fun without being jokey, and it deserves the attention of a packed multiplex.

Congratulations to Ti West for actually convincing me to check out his next flick, Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever.  I believe the guy has more than just an understanding of what makes 80’s horror great, but of what makes all horror great.  And If Platinum Dunes is going to continue to insist on remaking old horror classics, I humbly suggest that they give him a call.

Emmet Duff

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