Written and Directed by: Ti West
Starring: Jocelin Donahue, Greta Gerwig, Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov
Reviewed by: Josh G.
Talk on the phone. Finish your homework. Watch T.V. DIE!
It is amazing what a poster can do for some people. When I first saw the retro artworks for Ti West’s The House of the Devil, I was immediately pulled in without even seeing a clip from the feature! Never judge a book by its cover, but it seems somebody knew that the general movie watching audience ignores this classic warning, and went along with the beautiful concept anyways. Lucky for us, while not shot with the dated cameras of Eli Roth’s Thanksgiving faux trailer (soon to be ex-faux?), everything from the fashions, to the setting, to the soundtrack, to the character dialogue and even the film angles are truly of that age before us. Placing our lead Samantha (the cute looking Jocelin Donahue) in the 80s during the night of an eclipse, she eventually finds out during a babysitting job that the tough life she had once thought conquered her existence was nothing compared to the demonic plan now laid out for her future.
Young college girl Samantha buys a home for rent (from landlady Dee Wallace of Cujo and The Howling no less) with lenient expectancy for payment. Still, she must come up with the money, and the work place is getting scarcer by the minute. She calls for a babysitter fill in job from a number posted outside, but is stood up at the meeting place when the home owner doesn’t show. Returning to her shared apartment, she finds out that she received a call from said owner, to appear that night for an urgent arrangement. Friend Megan (Greta Gerwig) is skeptical about leaving Sam out in the middle of an area unfamiliar to either, but Sam needs the money. When they arrive, owners Mr. and Mrs. Ulman (Tom Noonan of Wolfen and Manhunter; Mary Woronov of Silent Night, Bloody Night and TerrorVision) change their story to an elderly care position, where four hundred dollars is up for grabs if Sam takes it. No close-eye watching necessary. Hesitantly, she does, and sends Megan off to pick her up in a few hours. Alone, the spooky house does a toll on Samantha’s nerves, as she hears some creaks from the second floor, and as Megan’s home phone continuously heads to voice mail. Where is her friend, what are those noises, and what is the true plan for bringing her to the Ulman house?
Here’s an example of modern horror done correctly. Strip away the whole set in the 80s thing of course. Though it is wonderful to see such things as feathered hair, One Thing Leads To Another by The Fixx playing through large headphones, and freeze frame yellow font used for opening and closing credits, that is not the sole reason why The House of the Devil works so well. It is the hidden aspect of keeping horror up to the imagination like it used to be, instead of the constant in your face gore every seven minutes. Though the final fifteen minutes do change the entire tone of the movie quite abruptly, the first seventy five are all about that slow tickle, creeping up on you. A false sense of security for our Samantha and glowing suspense leading up to the exciting quick paced finale. One you truly appreciate because of how mysterious the Devil and his workings have remained up until this time.
Gerwig has a special presence about her, like those fun goofy girls with witty attitudes that were so very outspoken. No bitch or jerk characters. It is all about keeping with the lighter side of things until the shit hits that inevitable fan. Some may call the build up too slow or boring, but that is kind of the point. Not boring to say, but creating an atmosphere that can be related to by everyone who watches it. A large but story telling home in the dark. Meeting and having to trust in those who you have just recently met. Though personally, I would have quickened up the first act to get us to the Ulman house by at least the twenty five minute mark, you have to take your fries and mashed potatoes separately. Having both is possible, but one works better alone, correct? For taking the time to get into the core of the story, we get to see the struggles Samantha is going through, how she desperately needs this job, and how she just wants to have a night to herself to continue making ends meat.
BANG! Eventually the film hits you with a shocking and devastating plot turn which only the viewer knows of, and the tingling continuation of the ‘lone girl in a foreign land’ is seen through new eyes. There is now a purpose to keep watching, and a mystery to be solved. From the title or even from the plot summary, what is going to happen is not much of a question. It is ‘when’. When will the dark forces show themselves? I do like how West made the ‘babysitting’ portion last about fifty minutes, so that it would not have to be clouded by overabundant events. Reserving most of the frights for Sam’s way of seeing things was fine for the time. ‘A lot of nothing’ is not the term to be used. ‘A lot of mood’, perhaps. Preparing us for the line of horror down the road. Instead of material straight out of the genre’s handbook, we get a more dramatic approach to the entire thing, which Donahue takes advantage of, I’m happy to say. When you first see the Ulman family, it is a bit strange. They are people you immediately see as being off, but you couldn’t run away from them. You have knowledge of their peculiarities, but no outstanding proof.
Satanic cults are so underused today. As are hallucination/dream sequences. I think the most effective scene comes from Samantha upstairs in the Victorian’s attic, about to open a door in the dark, but is overcome by a mind-fogging feeling. Something is near her. She must run away! But the camera appears to take on some of what Sam should be feeling at the moment, creating an urgent moment that pains you to see the lead struggle down the stairs and plop to the floor unconscious. Then everything comes right at you! Like an entirely different picture was reeled up. However, it works. It works better than I could have imagined. Complimenting the entire film before it; lifting it up and telling you ‘see, I told you it was worth it, didn’t I?’ The evil rears its ugly head and makes for one of the tensest scenes I’ve seen shot in these modern day years. And for those few who were complaining about it not being gory enough up to this point? Blood! Blood!
The payoff comes in an uttermost strange way, after all is shown and most of the cards have been dealt. A happy ending that is not happy at all? Most horror films end either dominantly good or depressing. In The House of the Devil, it is split down the middle. ‘Hooray! In the end, this happened. Oh, but that means that this happened’. Well done. For adding a small cast that you care about, bringing back suspense, holding back on the commonplace grue and actually enhancing the film (which was already well done) before it, Devil is an excellent thriller that will surely deservedly gain a cult following in years to come. No pun intended. MPI will release a DVD and Blu-ray of this next year. It appeared in theaters with a limited release in the USA, as well as on Video on Demand for the month of October. Maybe this will spark some new life and ideas in the Hollywood movies making headlines today. Probably not, but I am sure if it did, people would hold the times we are living in today much more dear to them. Without a doubt, Buy it!
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