Friday, May 14, 2010

REVIEW: The House of the Devil

The House of the Devil
Director: Ti West
Year 2009

The House of the Devil is a great throwback to the sleazy days of the 70's and 80's, when films took there time to lay out an unsettling story of satanic cults and doomed babysitters. Ti West, soaks the film in these nostalgic elements and establishes a great homage to those long forgotten days. The film follows a college student by the name of Samantha, played by a totally seventies-ish Jocelin Donahue, who is hard up for cash and willing to take any job that comes her way.

What to do, what to do?

Samantha ends up finding an ad for a baby-sitting job and calls to see if the position is still available. Fortunately for her, or so we will later find out that it isn't so fortunate, the job is still open and the mysterious man offers for her to stop by as soon as possible. What at first seems like a perfect opportunity to make some quick and easy cash, soon turns out to be more then innocent Samantha had bargained for as her night at the insidious housesitting gig becomes stranger and stranger.

Samantha doesn't have a good feeling about this job.

The cast of this film is quite small, but what they lack in numbers they make up for in rich interesting characters that are stuck in that charming retro style that fits this film so well. One of the more memorable characters in the film, is Samantha's best friend Megan, played by rubber face herself, Greta Gerwig. This actress makes so many weird and unusual facial expressions throughout this film, that you would think her face must have been tired as hell after the shoot was finished. The strangeness of it all really adds to her character and seems to make sense with her goofy nature and lovable attitude.

The many weird faces of Megan. Jesus!

There is a distinct pace that Ti West uses to approach the story line, letting the various events that follow to flow at a steady tempo. In some instances, the technique feels strained and almost too familiar to real life, but patient viewers are well rewarded by the end of the film. The methodical pace gives us a great deal of time to get to know Samantha and the world that she inhabits, making us almost feel like a friend that is along for the ride. We sympathize with her innocent nature of just wanting to earn some cash to pay her rent and we feel the confusion when things start to spiral wildly out of control. I feel that the pace is the most charming and effective aspect of this film, and Ti West has created a film universe that really feels tangible and certainly comes off as believable.

This is the house where the devil lives. Alternate title.

Another amazing character that this film presents in unabashed awkwardness, is the employer of the baby sitting job and overall creep, Mr. Ulman, played by a loopy Tom Noonan. His interactions with Samantha's character, are unsettling at best and you strongly get the feeling that we don't fully know of his desired intentions. Noonan plays this interesting character with a harmless wonder and a touch of madness. The balance between these polar opposite qualities is naturally strange in itself, but when you combine that with his rather tall and lanky stature, you're presented with quite a unique character and one that really stands out in this film.

And he seemed like such a nice old man.

I've only slightly touched upon the 70's and 80's style of this film, but Ti West really does an excellent job in making us believe that this film is some long lost gem from a forgotten era. We're treated to cuffed pants, Farrah doos, and even some sweet walkman action. The immersion of it all is quite effective and West's choice of shooting the film with a de-saturated palate, helps to replicate the look of those classic "grindhouse-esque" films from years past. I was never taken out of this time era for one second and I think the director did a fantastic job in emulating the feel and timing of these films.

Get your ass out of there Samantha!

Speaking of sweet walkman action, we are given a highly entertaining scene where Samantha's character  rocks out to The Fixx's, "One Thing Leads to Another", that really brings on the classic 80's montage that was so prevalent in these types of movies. She moves from one room to the next, while getting down and letting loose. The way West films this sequence is quite unique, in the way that he concentrates on the effects of the music and lets the rhythm of the beat dictate the pacing of the editing. We jump in and out of the musical track as Samantha takes the headphones off and on as she snoops around the house and by using this technique, we are given a sort of point of view of what she is hearing. I like this idea, because for such a relaxed and happy scene we are given the unsettling feeling that Samantha's character can't hear if someone else is in the house because she is so preoccupied by the blaring sounds of this catchy 80's tune. It catches you off guard at times and the contrast of the pop tunes with the overwhelming feeling that something could happen to this character at any moment, is an unsuspecting pleasure to experience and see play out. 

This is Samantha's too cool for school scene. Total badass.

A large portion of this film focuses on Samantha's character and she does an excellent job of keeping the audiences attention and making them want to follow her character, all the while enticing them to see her story unfold as it delves into devilish territory. I was reminded of countless classic horror films that used this same concept with great effect. John Carpenter's 1978 film Halloween had Jamie Lee Curtis as she struggled to survive Michael Myers blood soaked murder spree on Halloween night. Another John Carpenter classic, made in the same year, Someone's Watching Me, focused on Lauren Hutton as she dealt with a stalker who threatened to take her life, after she moved into an apartment highrise. There's even shades of Roman Polanski's 1968 bonifide classic, Rosemary's Baby, as Mia Farrow looses her mind amidst a secretive satanic cult desperate to birth evil into the world in the form of the antichrist. All of these films centered strongly on their female leads and relied on them and them alone to make a compelling story and to drive the narrative along with the suffering of their character. Jocelin Donahue achieves the same level of believability that these classic heroines have accomplished in their films and I believe that Ti West did a commendable job in picking such an unknown talent that was able to carry the great burden of pushing the story forward, making us believe in the natural outcome of her twisted story.

Samantha's ready to cut a bitch.

Like many films from the eras that this movie pays homage to, we are given a handful of occult mythos, horrific images of satanic rituals, and occult activities. This film is neck deep in the unknown and otherworldly, lending to the stereotypical visuals that we've come to know well from such films as the Peter Fonda starring 1975 film Race With the Devil, Hammer Films 1968 satanic piece The Devil Rides Out, and the big daddy of them all Richard Donner's 1976 film The Omen. All of these films set the standards to which Ti West crafted his own film, injecting the same sensibility and foreboding mood into The House of the Devil and doing it in a modern age. I think that's a stupendous effort and one that shouldn't be forgotten seeing that we are mired in a cinematic world that is always trying to improve on the already perfect stories that have previously been told. In an age of remakes after remakes, it's nice to see someone step back from the ongoing trend and create something that harkens back to the simpler days when films had original premises that only borrowed slightly from past films instead of carbon copying them.

What a horrible thing to wake up to.

Once things go horribly wrong for our main character Samantha, we are plunged into the 1974 blood soaked world of Tobe Hooper's Texas Chainsaw Massacre, well at least the imagery of that fantastic movie. Samantha's character is covered from head to toe in blood and she is forced to fight for her life in the most unexpected ways. She goes from being an innocent young girl to a rabid and ravenous animal, bent on survival and unconcerned about the savage ways she must resort to in order to keep her body intact. The 180 degree turn that Samantha's character takes is quite an abrupt one, and one that really needs an expert actor to pull it off. Luckily, Jocelin Donahue is up to the task and she pulls off a vigorous performance that really digs deep into her acting ability and shows what she is capable of when given the right material. In the words of Dr. Seuss, she's a beast to say the least.

She's so excited! And she just can't hide it!

The color choices that Ti West brings to this film are wondrous in their simplicity and ingenious in their naturalistic nature. Focusing in the final act on the color red, we are treated to some striking visuals of Samantha's character as she pops out in the composition, wearing her crimson red gown that is covered in blood. The look of this color palate is natural, but it is far more expressive then that because of the way that the color is framed within the composition. It's almost given the quality of an actor in a theatrical play that is being illuminated by a spotlight. Our eyes are drawn to her and fixated on all that has happened to her character up until this point. It's a subtle technique and one that doesn't bash you over the head, but instead just makes you take notice and focus in on all that is going on.

It's the new summer look. Blood drenched snuggies!

If there's one thing that you should come away with at the end of this film, is that the filmmakers and movie itself have balls. There are some shocking things that happen in this film, that really come out of nowhere and they leave you with a visceral and violent image that is hard to shake once it's planted itself inside your mind. The characters in this film are often cast to the wind, even ones that you suspect would make it through at least a little bit more of the films duration. It's safe to say that once things start going down hill, you really don't know who will make it to the end and survive, with their skulls still intact. You have to hand it to the filmmakers for not holding back for a second on spinning this deprived tale of innocence lost and malevolence gained. 

Well someone's gonna have to clean this shit up.

The House of the Devil is a wonderful trip down memory lane for anyone that has ever loved the obscure films of the 70's and 80's. With its groovy and rocking soundtrack, retro fitted images, and unbridled passion for giving us the overpowering essence of a long forgotten era, it's not hard to recommend this film to the die hards of satanic cult films. Ti West uses every trick in the book to make us believe that The House of the Devil was actually made back in these exciting times, when CGI didn't exist and filmmakers were forced to put a worthwhile story up onto the screen. If you've ever longed for the days of creative stories and horror films that have soul and character, then do yourself a favor and check this film out. I promise you that you'll be entertained.

4 out of 5 stars          A Great Homage to a Fond Era.


  1. Niice write-up on a strong film. Beyond the '80s stylings, it's just a damned good slow-build horror film. We need more of them.

  2. Exactly! We do need more of these kind of films that have great respect on building a certain tension and placing us in the moment. Thanks for checking it out.

  3. Lovely. Just saw this, and I love the retro feel (especially the zoom-in instead of crane shots, which you don't notice in older movies until you watch them back to back with a newer one).

    But you mustn't speak ill of Greta Gerwig, man. She's awesome.

  4. Yeah, the retro feel is amazing and greatly appreciated by me, that's for sure.

    Hahaha, I would never speak ill of Greta Gerwig. She was entertaining as hell in this movie and I agree is quite awesome. Thanks for checking out the review and glad you liked the movie.