Back to basics – The House of the Devil review

The House of the Devil – Starring Jocelin Donahue, Greta Gerwig and Tom Noonan. Directed by Ti West. Rated MA. Originally published July 7, 2010. By Simon Miraudo.

Now this is how you make a scary movie. The House of the Devil is a delicious throwback to the golden era of Hollywood horror – one that is unapologetically earnest and overwhelmingly committed to the task at hand. Director Ti West wants us to think that this is a legitimate film from the late 1970s/early 1980s; something you may have once caught at a drive-in alongside Suspiria or Halloween. He dares not wink at the camera even once. Whereas a wannabe grindhouse filmmaker like Robert Rodriguez can pump out an entertaining spoof such as Planet Terror, he can’t quite pull off the sheer terror that West conjures here. I adore every film of Dario Argento (yes, even the bad ones), and consider Rosemary’s Baby to be one of the scariest films ever made. I now happily add The House of the Devil to my list of favourites.

Jocelin Donahue stars as Sam, our naive, virginal, immaculately beautiful scream queen. She’s recently acquired a one-bedroom apartment, but the young college student needs some urgent cash for a down-payment. She decides to answer a suspiciously vague babysitting ad posted on her school’s notice board, and speaks to an even more suspiciously vague man about accepting the role. Her friend Megan (Greta Gerwig) – warning her against it all the while – drives Sam to the remote mansion where she has agreed to sit. Upon arrival, she meets the owner of both the mansion and the suspicious voice, Mr. Ulman (Tom Noonan), who reveals that there is no baby to sit per se – rather, his invalid mother. Sam need only stay in the house for the evening while he and his wife (Mary Woronov) go out to admire the impending lunar eclipse. Their mother won’t cause a fuss at all. Against Megan’s pleas, Sam agrees to the new conditions. After all, WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG??????

Obviously, a lot goes wrong, but the details of the wrongness shall not be spoilt here. What is perhaps most impressive about The House of the Devil is the sheer unwavering patience that West displays as director. Unwilling to blow his horror load in the film’s opening two thirds, he slowly builds suspense in true Hitchcockian fashion, using an uneasy camera to inspire dread and force us into corners that we don’t wish to inhabit.

Credit also has to go to Donahue, who could have easily played up either ditziness or overt self-awareness. She doesn’t. The great character actor Tom Noonan – you may remember him from Synecdoche, New York – is suitably creepy (yet somehow soothing), while cult actress Woronov pulls no punches as “a crazy old lady”.

It’s easy to forget that true horror comes from inventive filmmaking, not from overt gore and buckets of fake blood. Yes, that may sound hypocritical coming from a Dario Argento fan. But at least he combined his ridiculous blood-letting and brain-squelching with a gut-churning colour palette and a filled-to-the-brim mise en scene. There are so many surprises and such filmmaking ingenuity in Argento’s films, as well as those of David Lynch. They both reconstruct nightmare scenarios, and as anyone who has ever had a nightmare knows, it’s the build-up and tension that terrifies us. After all, you always wake up before you die in your dreams.

That ingenuity is gone from Rob Zombie’s lamentable Halloween remakes, or the toothless, tween-spooking Prom Night and Friday the 13th do-overs. Recently, horror fans were given TWO real gifts. The first was Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity, a horror film that really took it back to basics. Peli played cheeky tricks on the audience, as only a master craftsman can. The second was Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell, a brilliantly hilarious (yet sadly misunderstood) satire that was spooky in its own way. The House of the Devil sits somewhere in between, and I mean that as one hell of a compliment. Even though it can’t quite maintain that unbearable level of tension for the entire running time (the film’s final 10 minutes – although thrilling – aren’t quite as scary as you would hope), The House of the Devil proves that there is still life in this seemingly undead genre, so long as there are auteurs as committed as West still around.


Check out Simon’s other reviews here.

The House of the Devil is out on DVD this week.

One Response to “Back to basics – The House of the Devil review”

  1. Great review! Can’t wait to check this one out 🙂

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