Saturday, August 13, 2011

SUMMER OF SATAN: The House of the Devil

Ti West was a name I’d heard a lot, not in mainstream film criticism, but via bloggers who are passionate about horror cinema and make the effort to seek out new and interesting work. But until I picked up a copy of ‘House of the Devil’ dirt cheap on DVD recently, I knew nothing of his work.

That gets remedied. As of now.

‘The House of the Devil’ is both an homage to 1970s and 1980s low-budget American horror movies, and a reclaiming of an aesthetic all but mothballed in an age of blurrily fast cutting and overuse of CGI. West films his incrementally creepy tale in the style of a late 70s film and using techniques redolent of the area: zooms instead of dollying, lengthy tracking shots, extensive title credits, etc. But, to his credit, he emerges with something more than a mere filmmaking experiment; something more satisfying than, say, Soderbergh’s ‘The Good German’.

Opening with the assertion that, in the 1980s, 70% of Americans believed in the existence of abusive Satanic cults, ‘The House of the Devil’ immediately submerges us into a world of personal cassette players (explanatory note for under-18s*: kind of like the iPod, but bigger and with far less songs), cheesy music, Farah Fawcett hairstyles and boxy Volvo station wagons. (West also mentions that the film is based on “true unexplained events”; a wonderfully paradoxical sentence that presumably covers a multitude of invention and/or falsification.)

We quickly meet our heroine, Samantha (Jocelin Donahue), a college student looking to move out of the room she shares with a boy-crazy fellow student whose name I either didn’t catch or wasn’t important enough to be given a name in the script. (That’s “shares” as in “has to find other accommodation while roommate is entertaining anything with an X and a Y chromosome”, by the way.) She lucks out finding a landlady who cuts her a deal because Sam reminds her of her daughter; she waives the deposit, leaving Sam with only one problem: coming up with $300 for the first month’s rent.

This was the first thing ‘The House of the Devil’ did that I found particularly canny: while rooting itself in the 70s/80s aesthetic, it provides its heroine with an all-too-contemporary financial motivation (a narrow but valid parallel to ‘Drag Me to Hell’ here). Answering an ad for a babysitter, and calling on her pal Megan (the wonderful Greta Gerwig) to give her a lift out to their isolated homestead, Sam finds herself in the employ of Mr and Mrs Ulman, a couple so creepy that the Addams Family would probably cross the road to avoid them.

Another canny victory for West: the casting. Sam’s future landlady is played by Dee Wallace (‘The Howling’), Mrs Ulman by Mary Woronov (‘Death Race 2000’, ‘The Devil’s Rejects’) and her cadaverous husband by Tom Noonan (the man who launched a thousand involuntary bowel movements as Francis Dollarhyde in ‘Manhunter’). Indeed, Noonan gets his best role since Michael Mann’s psychological classic (and, for my money, still the best Thomas Harris adaptation) – he’s avuncular, refined and downright fucking scary in just the right combination. That he gives such a fine, nuanced performance – as does Donahue, easily one of the most winning horror heroines in recent years – is proof positive that West isn’t just an insightful student of the genre with a keen intuition for a tense set piece. He’s also a bloody good actor’s director.

And while I’m singing the guy’s praises, let me offer him fervent thanks for this above all: he assumes from the outset that his audience is intelligent, able to make connections, and won’t get bored if he concentrates on atmosphere and tension instead of delivering wall-to-wall torture porn viscera or crass sexual objectification. Shout it loud – Ti West respects his female protagonist and takes her seriously. He respects his audience and trusts them to respond to atmosphere, suspense and the occasional well-timed revelation.

Sure, he delivers the goods in a sustained, but not unnecessarily protracted, finale which plunges Sam into a waking nightmare and drives her to a desperate but gut-wrenchingly understandable final reel act without the need for laboured exposition or agonised overacting. But it’s the time and attention to detail he invests into building up to said finale that pays dividends and proves you don’t need swathes of CGI and geysers of stage blood to orchestrate a genuinely dark and nasty denouement.

Released at the culmination of a decade in American horror cinema defined by remakes (‘The Hills Have Eyes’, ‘Halloween’, ‘The Omen’, ‘The Amityville Horror’, ‘The Wicker Man’ etc etc), ‘The House of the Devil’ is infinitely more in tune with the spirit of an earlier – and arguably better – age in genre cinema than anything Platinum Dunes or the other bandwagon-jumpers have offered us. Ti West plays his hand perfectly, creating a slow-burn skin-crawler of the old school that lingers in the mind.

*Please don’t tell your parents you read this blog.


J.D. said...

Agreed! This film wipes the floor with all those pansy Platinum Dunes crap remakes and shows how you do it right. I've read that West even used movie cameras from the era in order to get that specific 1980's look, which is one of the reasons it feels so authentic.

I was really taken with this film also and eagerly anticipate whatever West has got going on next.

And how about that casting? Not only is he paying homage to the past by casting horror/cult film royalty but he gets these actors to really dive into their roles. This isn't merely stunt casting but rather having them play fascinatingly unsettling characters. When you meet Noonan's character, you know something isn't quite right and the dread is waiting for the other shoe to drop and find out just what is not right about the guy and his wife and the house.

Good stuff.

A hero never dies said...

A great film Neil, the atmosphere and the levels of intensity reached in House of the devil are really impressive. West is certainly a director to keep an eye on, if he ever gets a decent budget who knows what he could do.

Brad said...

I have two posters for this hanging in my apartment. And copies on dvd, bluray and vhs. I'm glad to see someone giving it it's due. Great post!