The golden age of horror: The House of the Devil (2009)

Chris: The great triumph of this bravura bit of filmmaking from American horror auteur Ti West isn’t that he almost effortlessly creates a perfect facsimile of an early 1980s horror movie. Rather, it’s that by 20 minutes in we forget we’re watching a period piece and instead are completely invested in Samantha and the weird babysitting job she takes. What’s up with the creepy couple? Why are they offering so much money? What the heck is going on with the unseen “mother”? We’re so into the movie that we’ve forgotten that we’re not watching some great lost cable TV movie from back in the day.

After the jump, this one…she’s perfect.

Chris: We’d still be remiss if we didn’t talk a little about how perfectly House of the Devil captures the era of early 1980s horror. The title sequence is amazing. The clothes, the cars…everything is so perfect. (Notice for instance, that Samantha wears her watch so the face is on the inside of her wrist. That’s how the cool kids did it 1984 in the midwest, I can promise you.) What’s more impressive is that this film is interested in doing more than playing dress-up. It creates a basic horror movie scenario and then lures us in so well that before we know it, we’ve completely invested in this dark little story.

Jason: It’s very rare for a movie, horror or otherwise, to perfectly capture the feeling present in a time. On top of growing up Christian, in the deep South, I went to a private Christian school. We had guest speakers come to talk about backwards masking and how Queen wanted you to smoke weed and Led Zeppelin hailed their sweet Satan in order to corrupt our young minds. When I played my first pencil and paper RPG, it was most certainly not Dungeons and Dragons. And it was most certainly not D&D because of the atmosphere of paranoia surrounding devil worship.

Chris: Yes! How retro is it to make a movie about a devil worship cult? I mean, we’ve sort of gotten away from the whole Satan thing as a movie villain these days. If a modern horror film has cultists, chances are good they’re of the Cthulhu variety. The early 1980s though? We were still very much under the long shadow of The Exorcist and The Omen movies back then.

Jason: It’s weird, and maybe because of my age I didn’t see the real world, but the 1980s felt simpler, and the fear of simpler things was easier to sell. That’s not to say the fear of Satan isn’t a rational fear in the context, but now most of our horror comes from humanity. It’s almost always a psycho or deranged murdered – or group thereof. I miss the idea of nebulous horror.

Chris: What also feels very retro here are the acting choices made by Ti West’s excellent cast. One thing I’ve noticed is that most actors in modern horror tend to go for understated (everyone’s David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson). It’s easy to see why. When things get crazy and weird, that understated aspect of the performance helps us to buy into what we’re seeing on screen. Perhaps it makes it feel more plausible. That’s not what goes on in House of the Devil, though. Look at the way the amazing Greta Gerwig and our star Jocelin Donahue interact. They’re animated and lively, their performances almost jumping out at us. (To really see it in action, check out Gerwig’s performance in the cemetery. Even just sitting in her car, she’s doing all these physical things that are completely atypical of what we expect in a modern horror film.) These outsized performances could run the risk of edging into self-parody, but they never do, and it makes what is actually a fairly languidly paced film crackle with energy.

Jason: It’s funny, I saw The Innkeepers before I saw this movie – both by Ti West and both awesome – but this one sticks with me the most. I suppose it’s partly due to the absolutely amazing use of One Thing Leads to Another by The Fixx. I’m a total sucker for music in movies, especially if that music is used to an interesting end via editing (see Donnie Darko), and House of the Devil delivers in this regard. The main character Samantha is hired to babysit the elderly parent of an unusual couple in their creepy old house. After the couple leave, she is left to her own devices. She pops in her headphones and dances through the house. I really love this scene because it gives you a quick glance around and also sets a fair amount of tension.

Chris: Mom always said don’t dance to new wave in the house. That sequence is terrific. I love the way the music cuts when she opens the door to the basement too. Donahue is just a revelation, right? I couldn’t agree more with Mr. Ulman’s assessment; she really is perfect. Look at the way she walks, with her bouncing, supinated stride. She must’ve been around 26 when she made this movie, but she perfectly captures this kind of coltish teenaged manner that’s sometimes awkward, sometimes graceful, and always full of her character. Donahue spends a lot of the movie wandering around the huge house, and we’d forgive her if she wanted to mail in a few seconds here. She doesn’t. Her every mannerism and facial expression registers everything every second she’s on camera.

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Chris:: Jason also mentions the tension in the movie, and by the time some foul-tasting devil pizza has been delivered, it’s so thick here you could cut it with a, well, with a knife. The entire middle section of the movie is Samantha wandering (sometimes dancing) around the house. She hears footsteps, the occasional bump in the night, perhaps the sound of something heavy being dragged. She finds a picture showing the Volvo in the driveway, but that isn’t Mr. and Mrs. Ulman in front of it. There’s hair clippings all over the bathtub. The camera almost begins to feel like it’s stalking her. I’ve seen the movie criticized for being too slow, but I disagree. I wanted as much of this–as much of Jocelin Donahue reacting to increasingly scary stuff–as Ti West is willing to give me.

Jason: Yes, the picture and the bathtub. Of course, from the get-go, we know that something is going to go wrong – and it’s all just a matter of time – but with Ti West, he loves to drag it out. You know that all hell is going to break loose, but when? Will she survive whatever fresh hell they have concocted for her?

Chris: I’m used to buildup in horror movies that goes nowhere. I don’t think House of the Devil commits that sin. When the lights throughout the house suddenly blink out…and then we see the light under the forbidden attic door, and see the shadows come to the doorway, it’s a genuinely terrifying moment. The chase through the house worked for me, too. In the end, that’s what we get here: a chase and a choice. You could quibble that the ending itself is a bit too much Rosemary’s Baby, (or that Victor Ulman’s gun does frightening damage to one head, but not another) but at this point I’d bought all in anyway.

The House of the Devil is one of my favorites that we’ve watched this October. If you want it to work for the gorgeous camera work, authentic flavor of an era, and fantastic acting, it delivers those goods pretty well. If you’re looking for a slow-burning scary movie, it works as that too.That it’s able to pull both of those things off is just tremendous horror filmmaking.

(Perhaps you’ve noticed that we’ve reviewed The House of the Devil out of chronological order. You’re right! I screwed up here. After sorting our films by theatrical release, I put together the order we’d watch them in. The problem here is that this particular film did the horror movie festival circuit, then went to VOD in wide release in 2009. For whatever reason, it got an actual proper theatrical release in 2012 in Taiwan, and that’s where I mistakenly grabbed a 2012 release date on this. I noticed the mistake too late, and didn’t want to change the order after we posted the list. I’ve since updated the date here and on our hub page. To paraphrase Sam Seaborn, let’s not lament this movie coming late to the party, but rather embrace that it’s finally arrived!)

(The House of the Devil is available to stream for Netflix and Amazon Prime subscribers, or for purchase from the usual VOD outlets.)

(So what’s this “golden age of horror” stuff?)

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