Mike Boussidan, a former co-worker of mine at the long defunct Pine Hollow Video store in EastNorwich, New York, and also a facebook friend, had a posting on his wall a few months back about a movie that sounded very intriguing. The film’s name was The House of the Devil, written and directed by Ti West (Cabin Fever 2). It has recently been released on DVD and VHS. No, you’re not having trouble with your eyes, I did write VHS. For those of you who yearn for the good old days before DVD, Blu Ray, and whatever technology will make the aforementioned obsolete in a few months, horror fans and video collectors alike can purchase a VHS copy of the film exclusively on Amazon.com. The best part about that is you also get a copy of the DVD, but you will have to shell out a little extra money, as of the writing of this blog, $31.49 plus shipping.
In my opinion, not one single frame is wasted in this masterful homage to the horror films of the late 1970s to mid 1980s. The clothes, hair, walkmans, even the pay phones that people depended on in those ancient years; no detail seemed too trivial for the authenticity Mr. West was trying to capture. While watching the movie, I had an instantaneous flashback to my youth when lead character Samantha Hughes, played by Jocelin Donahue, is talking to her friend Megan, played by Greta Gerwig (Greenberg), at the town’s pizzeria. I thought of the long gone days of what once was my beloved Mario’s Pizza in East Norwich, the way it used to be before it got all fancy. I preferred it when I was a teenager, when it still had the red stucco backed benches, free standing video arcade games, such as Gauntlet, and a small area for seating.
Let me be frank, this film is not going to be a pleasurable viewing experience for everyone. Fans of gore infested films such as those in the Saw franchise, and by the numbers slasher fare like the bulk of the Friday the 13th films, or those whose tastes lean to the ultra extreme such as Hostel I & II, and a cadre of the Asian imports are going to be turned off by most of the film which unfolds at a deliberately slow pace. Like the original iconic 1974 version of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the House of the Devil is more about implied horror and atmospheric location as opposed to what is actually transpiring on the screen. Please don’t get me wrong, there are some genuine scares in this film and West seems to know just when to release them during the lengthy exposition, and the last 15 minutes of its 95 minute run time will induce some serious heart pounding, but the bulk of the film just unfolds as if it were a ho-hum day in the life of an average American college student. This is done thanks in part to the downplayed approach Jocelin Donahue takes to portraying her character, who, is not overly developed by director West, but Donahue remedies that by infusing just the right degree of ingénue vulnerability into her role.
In addition, I felt that the lack of a heightened body count, over the top death scenes, and the exclusion of gore just for the sake of gore, makes this piece of cinema unequivocally stand out among a great many of its contemporaries. Ti West even takes a minimalist approach with the musical score, where the majority of the screen time music is kept at arms length giving way to relative silence.
The premise of the film is a relatively simple one that many of us I am sure, at least in part, can relate to. Who among us, especially when we were younger, didn’t desperately need money for something, and didn’t have a clue as to how to get our hands on the funds? I know I’ve been in that situation and I am sure most of you reading this have found yourself in similar circumstances at some point during your life; well that is the catalyst that gets this film going. Samantha is a college sophomore who has just been shown what she feels is a great apartment by her real estate agent, played in a small role by Dee Wallace (E.T., The Hills Have Eyes 1977). The only problem is it’s a Friday afternoon; she doesn’t have the required capital for the down payment, and Monday is the deadline.
What to do? Well, in the world in which this film takes place, Samantha answers a cryptic advertisement for a job babysitting for the Ulman family, an off-putting couple played by a low-key Tom Noonan (Wolfen, Manhunter), and his bordering on camp wife, Mary Wornov (The Devil’s Rejects), and right from the get go there is something not quite right about the job. When Samantha finds out that she’s not there to baby sit a kid, but rather Mr. Ulman’s elderly mother, she turns tail to leave, but as with most things in life the allure of the mighty dollar beckons her to stay, especially when the desperate head of the household is willing to triple what he was going to pay her. In that moment, Mr. West’s film is transformed into an atmospheric exercise in classic horror that aspiring directors of the genre should pay rapt attention to.
I feel to write more about exactly what takes place in the film from that moment on would be doing a disservice to those of you who’ve not yet seen this little gem. The film is nothing horror and supernatural fans haven’t seen before, and it is deliberately such, but director Ti West captures the conventions of the time period he’s trying to emulate so brilliantly that what’s old is new, if even for just one film. It is a slice of horror heaven, if you will, that represents the past, but showcases the talent of an upcoming writer/director who makes a statement that the genre can have a promising future. Rent the movie today at Blockbuster or through your on-line rental provider if you haven’t seen it…or buy a copy….I picked mine up at Best Buy two weeks ago. If you’re a fan of films like Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, Rosemary’s Baby, or When A Stranger Calls you won’t be disappointed. I think this will be a film that will become must see viewing for those who crave well crafted psychological scares, and in this blogger’s opinion it has the teeth to perhaps one day achieve cult classic status.