Solid craftsmanship disguises some rickety timber in The House of the Devil. Writer/director/editor Ti West says in one of the DVD’s two commentary tracks that he had Polanski and Kubrick in mind when he conceived the film, which is a more promising place to begin than the usual blood-soaked homage to Halloween or Friday the 13th. Though the movie recalls early 70s knockoffs of Rosemary’s Baby more than Polanski’s original, and could never be as obsessive as The Shining (or any Kubrick credit), I appreciate what West did with the place.
Young filmmakers—West is 29—are fascinated by the 80s, so the film is set then, with The Fixx’s “One Thing Leads to Another” blasting from a “portable” Walkman the size of a toaster oven and clanking big phones hung on the kitchen walls. (How did those of us with longer memories ever survive?) It’s as detailed as a Jane Austen adaptation set 200 years ago. But West’s modus operandi skips Jason and Freddy and the rest of the Reagan horror funhouse to dwell on moody atmosphere for much of its running time, in the vein of Nixon-era shockers that chose to string us along (like 1971’s Let’s Scare Jessica to Death or 1973’s The Wicker Man) or the horror-themed ABC “Movies of the Week” (The House That Would Not Die, Satan’s School for Girls, etc.) that standards and practices restrained from showing too much. The occasional showers of grain that fleck Eliot Rockett’s fine cinematography seem like a deliberate nostalgic touch.
All of the technical credits are outstanding, actually, with kudos especially to production designer Jade Healy and composer Jeff Grace, who really nail down the mise-en-scène in the Connecticut-made production. That’s key for a movie like The House of the Devil, which depends more on a shivery vibe than its fairly simple story to induce shudders. Cash-strapped student Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) takes a lucrative gig babysitting for the Ulmans, a reclusive couple who live in a mansion far from campus (and uncomfortably close to a cemetery). Her best friend, Megan (Greta Gerwig, a veteran of so-called “mumblecore” indies) is skeptical, but Samantha decides that for $400 it’s worth the old college try. That is until things begin to go bump in the night, and one thing leads to another, as a lunar eclipse draws near. Hmmm…could it be…Satan?
The House of the Devil benefits from a smoothly orchestrated pace. A big “whammy” occurs unexpectedly, followed by a lot of sleuthing of low-key disturbances as Samantha begins to suspect that the house is not a home. The waiting for something else to happen camouflages the fact that if Samantha had simply stayed put in the living room, stuck to soft drinks and crackers, and passed the time watching Night of the Living Dead on TV nothing would have happened, or at least nothing that she couldn’t have fought off from the get-go. As it is the third-act hullaballoo—pentagrams, rituals, knives, screaming—is a letdown after the buildup, as the banality of 80s-and-after horror enters the atmosphere.
Still, much of The House of the Devil is a reaction against excess, perhaps that of West’s mangled sequel to Eli Roth’s noxious 2003 hit Cabin Fever (the film was co-produced by Larry Fessenden, maker of some of the more thoughtful chillers of late, including Wendigo and The Last Winter.) Unlike Roth, or Rob Zombie, West makes good use of his iconic castmembers, rather than relegate them to blink-and-you-missed-them cameos. The maternal warmth of Dee Wallace (of The Howling, E.T., and Cujo) as Samantha’s landlady is soon offset by the chill of Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov, as the mysterious Ulmans. The tall, gaunt Noonan, who has established himself as an independent filmmaker and character actor (most recently in Synecdoche, New York), makes a rewarding return to his roots, as the killer in Manhunter (1986) and the Frankenstein monster in The Monster Squad (1987). I love seeing Warhol Factory alum Woronov in anything—her mean principal in 1978’s Rock and Roll High School (“Does your mother know you’re Ramones?”) and the hilarious black comedy Eating Raoul (1982) are gems—but it’s especially gratifying to see her cruel beauty put to good use here. Someone really should cast her and Barbara Steele as sisters.
Available on DVD and Blu-ray and–talk about nostalgia–a VHS/DVD bundle— The House of the Devil (1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen) has a pair of relaxed and informative commentary tracks, with West and the appealing Donahue (reminiscent of Karen Allen) on one and the filmmaker, producers and crewmembers on the other. A making-of, better-off-deleted scenes, interview footage, and the theatrical trailer round out a House that horror fans are advised to visit.
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