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Shriekfest 2010: “The House of the Devil” (2009)

The slow burn. That’s something 21st-century torture porn franchises like “Saw” and “Hostel” have taught audiences not to appreciate. But Ti West’s “The House of the Devil” does not live in this time. It is a love letter — and an articulate, skillfully crafted one — to a simpler era of horror (the ’70s and ’80s) when psychological torment trumped blood splatter. The impact of knife-wielding, bloodthirsty psychopaths and their ghastly handywork fades quickly; the havoc wrought by one’s own imagination does not.

Consider the plight of college student Samantha (Jocelin Donhaue), who finds herself alone in a spooky Victorian miles from her dorm and her ride Megan (Greta Gerwig). Desperation got here there: Wanting to escape her boorish dorm roommate, Samantha found a quaint apartment nearby. But the landlady (Dee Wallace) needs the first month’s rent in less than a week, and Samantha, in dire need of quick cash, finds an ad for a babysitter. Mr. Ullman (Tom Noonan) needs someone immediately. Samantha hears the clipped urgency in his tone and she’s disturbed by it — just not enough to turn down her only job offer. The long, winding drive to the Ullman homestead is a great mood-setter, but a very subtle one. Samantha and Megan chatter, with Megan becoming increasingly uneasy about the Ullmans and insisting that she come along. Nothing leaps out in front of the car; no sinister shapes dart past the camera too quickly to be seen. In short, nothing happens but two girls talking and driving down a road that seems endless. Expectation of what’s at the end of the road multiplies the dread exponentially.

The remote, spacious home — and the Ullmans themselves — live up to this expectation. Noonan is menacing in completely unexpected ways because there’s nothing about him that screams “villain.” From the looks of it, he’s an eccentric old man acting as caregiver to his aged mother (he lied in the ad). He could be an eccentric who just doesn’t want to miss the midnight lunar eclipse. There’s more to his flimsy story than that; our mistrust of him stems more from what he does not say, and from his body language. He is tense and nervous and not as harmless as he appears, which Noonan demonstrates by forcefully scraping back his chair when Samantha, upset he mislead her about the job, starts to leave. He asserts a disquieting kind of authority in this scene, and Samantha backs down (though not without negotiating her fee up to $400). Noonan and Donahue’s early scenes together are an exercise in controlled anxiety. The tension easily triples when Samantha, essentially alone in the sprawling, silent house, tries to distract herself by wandering the rooms, exploring coat closets, calling Megan and leaving messages on her machine, ordering a pizza. Much of “The House of the Devil” revolves around Samantha’s efforts to settle her mind in the face of the house’s creeks and groans. And there are many, for Ti West has designed the Ullman house to act as a character and not merely a prop.

Until the final bloody act, “The House of the Devil” relies on three things: Jeff Grace’s spare, creepy score (devoid of that “hey, the killer’s behind you” showiness), Donahue’s performance (which is so realistic as to be more of a nonperformance) and West’s stern refusal to offer up the slightest bit of tension relief. It’s the third point that lingers unpleasantly after the credits roll, that feeling of waiting and not knowing. West builds the tension by holding back everything most modern horror directors would let loose in the first 10 minutes: blood, gore, violence, even action. Slasher film aficionados and gore fiends will find little to swoon over here. However, fans of psychological terror, of directors who only tease our minds with menace — faint thumping behind an attic door; a curtain rippling in a breezeless room — will be rewarded for their investment of patience and time. There’s a story here, a genuinely scary one, and West commits himself fully and totally to telling that story his way. West as a filmmaker has grasped a long-forgotten tenet of horror: that fear, as Frank Herbert wrote in “Dune,” is the real mind-killer.

Grade: A-

11 Responses

  1. Excellent write-up.

    I miss the days of occult-related horror movies. They were so much weirder, and even the bad ones were interesting. Not that this is bad.

    • Yeah, this one really plays on that ’80s-specific paranoia surrounding Satanic cults — and does it in a very effective and unexpected way, I think.

  2. I remember hearing about this movie when it first came out, but none of the reviews were as tantalizing as yours! It sounds like a very cool film and I think I’ll check it out, since I’m not much for slasher movies but I do like psychological horror.

  3. I always assume Noonan is a villain after Manhunter, creepy, creepy man.

    • @ Alex — I’m a fan of films that let our imaginations do most of the heavy lifting scare-wise, and I’d heard from a friend that “The House of the Devil” was just that kind of movie until the end. Ti West believes — as I do — that the longer you wait, the more intense something becomes.

      @ Fitz — I haven’t seen Noonan in anything else, although now I’ll certainly check him out.

  4. I really enjoyed this one and recommended it to a number of people–friends, friends of friends, even my parents! Sadly, most of them didn’t like it (my mom fell asleep!) because they felt like nothing much happened and that it was too slow. Personally, I loved it because of the tease. We don’t actually see satanic shit go down until the last few minutes. The final shot in the hospital bed was very memorable to me.

  5. I hated this movie. I may be in the minority for that but I just found it extremely boring. Nothing happens. Literally nothing almost the entire film. I didn’t find it creepy or tense at all and I would rather pound my head against the wall until chunks of drywall fell off and I could eat them till I died.

    Maybe that’s a bit harsh!

    • @ Franz — You’re dead on — it’s all about the tease! This film demands A LOT of patience, but (I think) all that time and effort is worth it because the anticipation is KILLER. The longer you fret about something, the scarier it gets. I loved the ending too.

      @ Film Reel — I’d say you’re in the majority, which makes me a little sad. I can’t argue with you that nothing happens; the whole point is that nothing does for a solid 80 minutes. Films that ask us for that much faith and patience are rare, but I think they’re smarter and better than the ones that throw gore at us from the opening credits. Plus, I honestly prefer horror movies like this where the directors make ME do all the imagining. It’s like the ultimate mindf**k. All the real damage I do to myself.

  6. […] The House of the Devil – If there was ever a contest for Worst Babysitting Job, this would be a top contender. That said there’s 2 camps out there that will view this film with completely polar opinions at the end. There will be those who will appreciate the slow pace because the eerie set up makes the pay off HUGE and the rest will think it was a waste of time. I can be found in the former camp. Ti West‘s ability to capture and recreate the 80′s look and feel (most notably the cinematography) was perhaps the most fulfilling part of the movie. Horror seems to have become just a hack and slash (and I’d add hit and miss) variety of films. Yet this stands among the few other films brave enough to try something different…and it worked. Great thing I saw Rosemary’s Baby before this to set me up for the slow but necessary style of storytelling. I loved it But I’m not the only one. Click this link to read a glowing review from M.Carter @ the Movies. […]

  7. I truly loved this film. I decided to give it a look after reading your review and I greatly appreciate the slow-boil approach. Well that and this looks like it was plucked directly from 1982. The cinematography was, to me, a sight to behold despite the film’s meager budget.

    The set-up, the misdirection, and the reveal all worked fantastically making the ending all the more satisfying. Moreover, and this is just me speaking, watching Rosemary’s Baby was a good way to get me in the mindset of this type of slow approach…not to mention some similarities in the plot:P Spoiler you say? Nah.

    • I’m glad someone else appreciated “the slow approach” — I was beginning to think I was one of, oh, 11 people on Earth who didn’t think it was “boring as crap.” I’ve found that the scary movies I gravitate to are the ones that mess with your mind or build up the suspense so gradually that you think you’ll tear out your hair if SOMETHING DOESN’T HAPPEN SOON. That in itself is a kind of mind game the director is playing with us because directors today know most horror fans are all about instant gratification. So when I find one who refuses to do that until the very end? That’s a director I gotta respect.

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