Saturday, November 28, 2009

Random Film Review #3: The House of the Devil (2009)

Samantha Hughes (Jocelin Donahue, channeling Karen Allen) is an overly stressed and financially strained college student who answers a simple ad for a babysitting job to be done on the night of a lunar eclipse. Upon arriving at the house, she meets the Ulmans (genre favorites Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov), a strange but seemingly harmless couple who inform her that she will actually be watching over an elderly woman. Despite her skepticism, Samantha agrees to take the job. And as any good babysitter will do, Samantha begins to snoop around the house and slowly discovers that she may be in for something far more sinister than what she signed up for.

Set in the early 1980's, The House of the Devil is an almost pitch perfect throwback to the horror films of that era. Director Ti West clearly has a true adoration and respect for the genre (unlike the Michael Bay/Platinum Dunes remake machine soiling the megaplexes these days) and has accomplished a wonderful slow burn of a movie that effectively builds tension as well as any movie of recent memory. Dialogue is sparse as a good portion of the middle of the film is dominated by Samantha being left alone to her own devices within the house and this is where the film will lose some viewers, but the snail's pace works in a movie like this because it is all about the small reveals and the big pay-off (which does not disappoint). As well, West is harkening back to an era where many of the classic horror films did not rely on the jump scares and buckets of blood that make up most of what we get today and a welcome change it is.

The look of The House of the Devil is also a major selling point as everything from the title sequence to soundtrack (The Fixx's 'One Thing Leads To Another' is used to great effect) to the graininess of the film's stock adds to the distinct feel of the time period that is being celebrated. Unlike Grindhouse (2007) with its exagerrated blemishes and scarred images, The House of the Devil merely appears as if you just discovered a long lost classic on late night cable.

If there is a complaint to be had, it would appear that West has difficulty in adequately directing action scenes. While the majority of the film is very meticulous in its set up, the third act does get a little messy and the camerawork follows this pattern. I have yet to see any of West's earlier work (though that will change in short order) so I cannot comment on whether this is a consistent issue with his films, but it was a bit jarring considering how well constructed everything had been up to the climax.

Nevertheless, it is finds like this, as infrequent as they may be these days, that keep my hope for the state of horror alive and well.

(Currently available through the Video On Demand feature through Time Warner Cable (maybe others). DVD release: February 2010)


  1. For me, the best thing about this film is that it really does feel like one of those little-known VHS horror gems you and your friends would decided to rent from a dusty horror shelf one Friday night, because the cover looked cool or because you have already watched the other five horror titles, the little corner store's rental section has to offer. The third act sort of falls apart a bit, but I even wonder if that was intentional...I can remember many of those nights where we'd rent some late '70s-early '80s VHS horror film in a big-assed plastic case, and the films were generally either near-classics with some failings, or outright crap with one or two good moments. This film plays like the former to me. It may have been intended to be a perfect aping of that sort of film.

  2. An interesting theory on the third act...while a bit jarring after how wonderfully crafted the first hour and change was, it certainly doesn't affect my immense admiration for the film.

    As well, I continue to find it odd that I will read just as many negative reviews for HOTD than positive. To each their own and all that jazz, but considering the junk that is forced on us in modern horror, dismissing HOTD is practically criminal.