Dark Sky Films // 2009 // 95 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis (Retired) // February 2nd, 2010
During the 1980s, over 70% of American adults believed in the existence of abusive Satanic Cults.
The above statement opens the film, and a dubious claim about true events follows. While The House of the Devil is by no means a true story, Satanic Panic certainly caused a lot of commotion during the Reagan era. Somehow, people were enthralled by the idea that losers in black robes were going to come around and eat their God-fearing babies. This is the now dormant fear that director Ti West (The Roost) taps into with his indie shocker, and the best horror film of 2009, The House of the Devil.
Samantha Hughes (Jocelin Donahue) needs money, and fast. What does any self-respecting early-'80s college girl to do? That's right, she gets a babysitting gig. On the night of a total lunar eclipse, she goes way out into the boonies to meet the Ulmans (Tom Noonan, Robocop 2 and Mary Woronov, Eating Raoul) at their home. They reveal that they, in fact, do not have a child. Instead, she must sit for grandma, who is asleep upstairs and should not be disturbed. Alone in the house, Samantha starts poking around, and finds much more than she ever could have feared.
Nobody should ever have to be reminded of this, but given the horror genre these days, it bears repeating. Horror is better when it tells a story; it doesn't have to be a litany of murders all the time. It seems like such a basic concept, but it's exactly this that makes The House of the Devil feel fresh. It isn't that the story is anything especially new, but the plot and characters are in place before the terror commences, and it makes all the difference. With the additional help of some good performances, we care about Samantha before she's in trouble and hope for her survival as the situation gets bad. Instead of siding with the villain and reveling in creative kills; increasingly common with the abominable characters in today's horror; we have invested in the protagonist, so her struggle actually means something.
It's ironic that, in order to feel fresh, West (who also wrote and edited the film) has to travel back in time. In every way, from the basic plot structure to the look of the film and even to the title credits, The House of the Devil plays like early '80s horror and works very well. High-waisted jeans (acid washed, of course), feathered hair, Walkmans, it's all here and it all feels authentic, but never in a winking, self-conscious way. No matter how awful those jeans are, nobody complains about them because, at the time, those pants were totally rad. Top to bottom, I noticed nothing that could be considered an anachronism.
Important as those details may be, however, this is no "remember the '80s" rip down memory lane; The House of the Devil is horror in the classic sense. West uses suspense in place of shocks and, though there is a fair share of gore by the conclusion, it is understated in exchange for tension. He brings out answers slowly, giving us little clues as Samantha gets closer to her answer, but we never know any more than she does. Without the cover art and the opening titles, in fact, there's little indication of devil worship. We can certainly feel that something is amiss. Why do the Ulmans need a babysitter so badly the particular night of the eclipse? If they say they don't have a child, why is there a fully furnished kid's bedroom in the house? We don't find these answers until Samantha does. By the time we're aware of the extent of the horror, West has built the tension perfectly and, when it breaks, the film rockets to its finale. And what a finale it is. I'll spoil nothing, but I can say that I don't remember seeing anything quite like it. The final image, as a result, is tragic and morose; even more so because the image holds throughout the closing credits, forcing us to dwell on this awful fate.
While not homage, The House of the Devil does carry strains of past horror classics. The plot is certainly related to Rosemary's Baby, but there are notes of other Polanski features, as well as The Changling, Nosferatu, and Italian shock-maestro Mario Bava. Some of these references are more overt than others, but West uses what worked from those films to create something all his own. It may not wind up ranked as highs them, but it's still a very solid entry.
The old-school look and feel wouldn't work nearly so well without a surprisingly skilled performance from Donahue. She is alone for more than half the film, so must carry the film on her shoulders, advancing the story and building the tension all on her own. On all counts, she performs admirably. She displays a charming vulnerability, but also an inner strength and a will to survive that shows itself in the final shocking moments. Greta Gerwig (Hanna Takes the Stairs) plays Megan, Samantha's best friend and, while her role may be small, she is pivotal to the character development. Hers is the best pure performance in the film, completely believable in her quirks and her diction, and integral to our developing empathy for Samantha. The most fun, however, comes from the Ulmans. Tom Noonan is a gentle creep, imposing in stature and tender in voice; a true wolf in sheep's clothing. Woronov, in almost everything she does, is a force of nature, and that's no different here. She has maybe five minutes of screen time, but uses every moment to chew through the scenery with abandon. The performance wouldn't work in a period drama, but she's the perfect person to play Mrs. Ulman. Do not trust these people. In this tiny cast of characters, heroes and villains alike play their roles with relish; all are compelling and fun.
The disc of The House of the Devil comes from Dark Sky Films and is a nice package. The film was shot on Super-16 stock, so there is considerable grain in the transfer. It was made this way for budgetary reasons, but it adds another level of authenticity with its old, cheap feel. It looks exactly as it should, with strong colors and deep blacks, but there is a general lack of clarity and detail. The sound is considerably better; thankfully, nothing has been done to make it seem old. This is a full 5.1 mix, and each channel gets a workout. The dialog is clear and the screams are appropriately piercing.
Extras on the disc start with a pair of commentaries. While both cover a lot of the same information, they do deal with different aspects of the filmmaking. The first, with West and Donahue, is a discussion of on-set stories and festival experiences. The second, with West, producer Larry Fessenden (director of the woefully underappreciated Habit) and sound designer Graham Reznick, is the more technical of the two. It's also the most enjoyable, with more of a party atmosphere as they yuck it up while doling out movie info. The few deleted scenes are interesting, but they were rightfully removed for pacing reasons. A making-of featurette and interviews with the cast and crew gives us much the same information as the commentaries, though in abbreviated form. This is a strong package for a very strong horror entry.
I like a good bloodbath now and again, but I like a varied approach to horror as well. Well-acted and tense as hell, The House of the Devil is a refreshing shot in the arm for a genre that is too often satisfied with following its own trends and cannibalizing itself.
Get a grip! Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Dark Sky Films
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 95 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes