Monday, March 1, 2010

Don’t Tell Mom, The Babysitter Will Probably End Up Dead

Ti West’s The House of the Devil is the new darling of the horror community which meant I was hesitant to watch and review it because a) many others have already done so and b) my expectations are rarely met (I’m sorry Trick ‘r Treat. I really like you but can we just be friends?). Hearing such mountainous heaps of praise from nearly every blog and podcast I respect left me no choice.
I had to enter The House of the Devil.

Quick Plot: College student Sam (Jocelin Donahue) is about to rent an adorable two bedroom home, mostly to escape germs and her promiscuous roommate’s date nights. Unfortunately, she suffers the condition shared by many coeds by not really having much in the bank. To earn a few bucks, Sam answers the mysterious ad for a baby$itter posted on a campus corkboard.

After much hesitation, girlfriend chatting, and pizza not-eating, Sam accepts the job. BFF Megan (Greta Gerwig) drives her to the secluded home of Mr. and Mrs. Ullman where things are, not surprisingly, not quite what they seem. 
They’re weiiiiiiiiiiird. You should know you’re in trouble when Tom Noonan, that 10’ tall enigma of fine thespianhood with genre cred, opens the door with painful politeness and far too much gratitude. Plus, Mrs. Ullman (the fine Mary Woronov) wears fur and the local pizza guy is more polite than a Jehovah’s Witness on a Saturday morning. I’ll cease any more detail on plot to protect the House of the virgins, but honestly, most of the story ends just about there anyway.

Other stuff happens, but The House of the Devil succeeds--and yes, it truly does--based on atmosphere. West clearly went to great lengths to ground everything about The House of the Devil in that golden age of creepiness known as the late ‘70s to early ‘80s, when Satan made more cameos than Christopher Walken. From the high-waisted jeans to grainy cinematography, every second onscreen is a new form of retro.
Also, it’s a damn scary movie, providing you accept a film primarily built on the oft used term, rarely mastered format, ‘slow burn.’ There are a lot of viewers--solid genre fans among them--who will say The House of the Devil doesn’t work, and they’re not necessarily wrong. Like The Haunting, Rosemary’s Baby, or even The Others, The House of the Devil is more about atmospheric buildup than blood (which is not to say there is none; a few fantastic practical effects practically drip goo off the screen). It might pull you in. It might not.

It got me, and I’m extremely happy that it did. The Ullmans are creepy, also quietly polite in a way that makes you believe Sam would accept their mysterious job. The actual house is a classic example of haunted gothic, made all the more eerie by the impending lunar eclipse. While we as an audience long to pull Sam’s flip-out bangs out of a situation that simply HAS to be wrong, Donahue does a perfect job at conveying smart caution mixed with simple monetary need. Like us, she enters the house sensing something off, then slowly lets her guard down as the jump scares prove groundless. By the time hell really starts burning, it’s incredibly jarring because we’ve already survived countless ups and downs. The payoff might seem a little too quick, but that’s only because we’ve had so much fun getting nervous with an hour’s worth of carefully constructed tension.
High Points
Gold stars to the whole cast, from Donahue for centering the story to Gerwig adding sassy and believable humor and the perfectly pitched Noonan and Woronov for being the definition of eery awesome

Guns are generally not that interesting on camera, but The House of the Devil finds several ways to make them truly frightening
Low Points
Um. I’m coming up short. If there’s any fault in the seamless direction of The House of the Devil, it shows somewhere in the bloody finale, which is simply not quite as stand-out as the masterful buildup.
Lessons Learned
Massachusetts is home to really awful pizza
Hard candy from old people is always gross, even when said elderly are Satanists
Don’t smoke. Seriously. Just don’t.
Every fan of the horror genre should give The House of the Devil a fair chance, but I do fully expect a vocal portion to find this an underwhelming and boring film. However, if you’re tired of self-aware slasher satires and just want an old fashioned spooky flick, this is a definite watch and, once proven, a solid purchase. The DVD includes some featurettes and an informative filmmaker and crew commentary (which, considering the skill at work, is a great investment for those interested in the technical side of filmmaking). Playful performances, masterful atmosphere, and an energetic throwback spirit makes it something truly special.


  1. Fantastic review, and I completely agree. I'm kinda in love with this movie and West now.

  2. I couldn't agree more. There seems to be such a backlash against this film, and while I can see where some of it is coming from, I don't really agree at all. I really liked it.

    I wish I hadn't done the whole VOD thing for it, missed all the special features (it was the only way to see the movie pre-Halloween, but shortly after I cracked and rented it, it had a local theatrical run and bluray. Doh!).

  3. Thanks guys! I hate that there's backlash, but the same thing happened to Trick 'r Treat. I think that when the genre film community falls in love with a film, they sometimes get a tad tooooo excited, practically daring those late to the party to hate the film.

    Gah Adam! I would've loved to see this in the theater! Definitely one of the more enjoyable watching experiences I'd had watching a film in some time. It's on my buy list as soon as I find a decent sale!

  4. Cool review - I haven't seen this yet (needless to say I can NOT wait to check it out!). I love how you thought it was 'something truly special.' And your talk of playful performances, masterful atmosphere, and energetic throwback spirit makes me want to watch it even more! ;o)

  5. Thanks James. I reallllllly hope you enjoy it (fingers crossed fingers crossed!). Check it out soon before the hype, then anti-hype sways you one way or another and be sure to review it!

  6. I must say the most happenin' moment in the entire film is the one-shot montage of her dancing to The Fixx's "One Thing Leads To Another" is too, my dream, to one day dance myself silly around an old Victorian house with said song blasting in my ears.

    Kudos for the atmospheric build-up. It was in fact creepy and it drew you in, albeit slowly because you didn't know what to expect. That was cool. Reminded me of The Shining.

    But the film lacked a solid climax. I'm a stickler for rich story. I wanted to know what made them satanist, what in the hell (literally) they were doing to her, and why did it have to end on such a blah note.

    I expected more. The Gate gave me more!

  7. Ashlee: Take a vacation in New England and stay in a quaint bed & breakfast. Probably your best chance of gothic Fixxing dancing that doesn't involve satanism.

    I can completely understand your thoughts on House of the Devil and *maybe on second viewing, I'd find the lack of explanation a tad more bothersome. Noonan and Woronov were also sooooo god that I could easily watch a film just telling their story. Still, I think any more would have started to tip the running time a little too far and i kind of dug the creepy mystery they represented. There were little hints along the way, but even Rosemary's Baby didn't fully flesh out the Satanists.

    And don't compare this film to The Gate! The Gate had to do all it could to distract the audience from the fact that all they REALLY wanted was to punch Stephen Dorff in the face. The story was just there to protect his mug.

  8. Laughing hysterically at The Gate comment! :)

    I'm with you on the mystery element because I liked it in Rosemary's Baby but Rosemary's just gave me something more that House Of The Devil did not. Maybe it was Sam's martyr move, I'm not sure. Like why was she 'the chosen one' aside from the fact that she's a cute, naive girl who enjoys bad pizza?

    I will watch it again to see if I can even by imagination fill in the gaps.

  9. Man, that pizza looked RANK. New England. 'Nuff said.

    I guess Satanists just have low-ish standards. They needed a woman of child-bearing age. Colleges seemed a great place to snare one. Mr. Ullman does make the comment that she's "so pretty" when her and Megan first enter the house, so I'm sure the devil appreciates that. Plus, when you consider the urgency he had in getting a sitter in time for the lunar eclipse, I would also venture that Satanists are just procrastinators.

  10. I enjoyed the movie--it was a near-perfect reproduction of the late 70's/early 80's flick, but my problem was that there was NOTHING new.

    You could have actually popped in one of those 70's/early 80's films if you simply wanted to watch one...

  11. You're not wrong Kangas. In terms of innovation, West doesn't really offer anything new, but there was some definite tension that genuinely grabbed me. I wouldn't call this film the best new thing in horror, but I'm definitely excited to see what else West can do.