Sunday, July 25, 2010

Dusting off the archives for Film Club Day

Pop quiz hotshot.
What's the best way to be cool?

A. Get a tattoo of the Chinese characters for "iPad"
B. Cruise through town on a Segway covered in environmentally concerned bumper stickers
C. Participate in Final Girl Stacie Ponder's Film Club 

If you're reading this blog, you're already hip enough to know the answer. Savvy readers will remember that I reviewed Ti West's well-received The House of the Devil earlier this year but since I'm sad to say I haven't had to chance to revisit it, what follows is merely a reprint of past work. So in a sense, this marks the first official summer rerun of The Doll's House. For fresh perspectives, order some questionable pizza, head to and catch a few more posts by fellow club kids.

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. Great review of one of my fave horror films of the past few years...having come up in the 70's and 80's seeing this film felt like I was watching an actual relic of the era.

  2. Thanks Pax! What are some of the films that you think this primarily calls back to?

  3. I think I'm in the vocal minority that felt this movie wasn't quite the bee's knees. Here's my view on the film: the first 30 minutes were EXCELLENTLY done, the last 20 minutes felt out of place from the 80's "vibe" of the film, but still I enjoyed them. What knocked my favorable impression of the film down drastically was that middle section of 30-40 minutes of our female lead exploring the house, and being alone in the house. In my mind, it ceased being a slow burn, and became an outright snuffing out of the candle. But I've been told many-a-time that maybe I wasn't quite fair for that perspective. *Shrugs*

  4. No Mikey, I can easily see the middle section not working for a lot of people. Nothing really happens and I think if you don't fall under West's spell, you simply tune out of the film. I don't know that I'll rewatch this film casually with the lights on: it works for its mood, but if the mood doesn't catch you, then yes...nothing actually happens.

  5. Great review! Still have to see this film...sigh...need to get my corpse butt in gear, lol
    Dreaded Dreams
    Petunia Scareum

  6. I love the posters for this film but have yet to see it.

  7. I'm glad you re-posted this because I remember only half reading it as I had yet to watch the film for myself at the time. I fully agree with your thoughts and know this is not a film for everyone, but what film is?! *The answer is Airborne*

  8. I can't remember whether I commented the first time (think I did) but I remember reading a great review.

    It's hard to say too many bad things about this film because it came together so well.

    It's definately on my list for a Halloween party.

  9. I agree with the greatness of the posters Soiled. That's why I had to include two in my post just to get them out there!

    Matt: I do the same thing when reading about a film I haven't seen. I sort of scroll over the words while trying not to process them. It doesn't really make any sense actually. And don't tell anyone, but I've never seen Airborne. The movie for everyone is The Muppets Take Manhattan. Or Showgirls.

    Ashlee: My research has revealed that you did indeed comment last time (three gold stars your way!). So now I heart you even more. Thanks!

  10. I like your style, I like your review. Happy to have discovered your blog (via Final Girl Film Club)---I look forward to reading more.