Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Dance With The Devil

As much as I applauded the spot-on retro vibe of the posters for the '80s-set shocker The House of the Devil, I had a hard time believing that the film itself would warrant much excitement. And now, having finally caught up with it, I can say that those non-expectations were met. While this is a vast improvement over writer/director Ti West's damn near unwatchable 2005 killer bat film The Roost (I still haven't seen West's sophomore feature, 2007's Trigger Man), The House of the Devil is still a whole lot of nothing.

Set in an unspecified year in the early '80s, The House of the Devil tells the story of Sam (Jocelin Donahue), a cash-strapped college student who can't say no to a suspicious baby sitting offer - even though it's at a house far off in the country, and even though the offer is made by a couple of Grade-A creeps (genre faves Tom Noonan as Mr. Ulman and Mary Woronov as his wife). While it's never a bad thing to see Noonan and Woronov, I feel that West was being too on the nose in casting them. To cast a couple that seemed truly innocent and nonthreatening would've been a much better strategy. Even if we as viewers know full well that appearances in horror movies are deceiving, a couple of friendlier faces would've made Sam seem like less of a dunce in accepting the Ulman's job offer. Or even to have Sam be an early '80s punk - someone who looks threatening herself (and who, thanks to her unconventional appearance, isn't likely to be hired for many jobs) might've made for an interesting wrinkle (and given Sam a much-needed personal dimension).

As is, West puts House at an early disadvantage. This should've been a movie where only the audience is able to percieve the early warning signs that portend danger for the heroine. But as the unmistakably shady Mr. Ulman (who dresses like an undertaker, by the way, and walks with the assist of a silver-headed cane right out of The Wolf Man) explains to Sam that he lied about the fact that there's a child that needs sitting (actually it's the elderly mother of Ulman's wife that she'll be watching over) and when he shows barely restrained flashes of anger at her apprehension, it's hard to imagine that any amount of money would be worth staying for - especially when her best friend Megan (Greta Gerwig) already offered to front Sam the money that she needs.

But believing - despite all evidence to the contrary - that this 'babysitting' gig will be easy money, Sam tells Megan to come back to Chez Satan in a few hours to pick her up. Thus begins a long night of Sam wandering from one shadowy room to the next. This is the best stretch of The House of the Devil as West makes good use of his impressive location. However, the suspense of what's lying in wait for Sam is always kept at a simmer. Even when all the cards are put on the table at the climax, The House of the Devil just isn't scary. This is a film that should be goosing the audience at regular intervals, setting up bigger and bigger scares - instead it progresses at an even keel that's the antithesis of horror. When a horror movie really works, it's when the director is a skilled manipulator who really wants to grab the audience by the throat (see Drag Me To Hell for example). That isn't the case with The House of the Devil, however. West sets a nice mood but he has no idea what to do with it.

They say the devil is in the details and true to that, with the cinematography, music, and costumes lovingly earmarking this as a lost relic of the '80s (although the title sequence, with its use of freeze frames, more accurately evokes the '70s), it's as though West believed that keeping it old-school was an end in and of itself. Instead it just turns The House of the Devil into a banal exercise in nostalgia. Watching this movie is like being reminded of movies that really did scare you rather than watching one that's actually interested in scaring you now. As Sam's acerbic best pal (the kind that every horror heroine needs), Gerwig turns in the film's sharpest performance - giving her character a natural vitality the rest of the film lacks. In the end, The House of the Devil is uncannily similar to the so-called 'satanic panic' of the '80s. That is, as much as it might sound scary, it's nothing to get worked up over.


Cheap Beer said...

I pretty much felt the same way. Just when it was over, I thought it was just getting going. This would've been better off as a fake trailer for "Grindhouse".

Anonymous said...

Hard to argue against the logic presented with Sam and her missed opportunities to get the hell out of dodge. But once you get past that, you didn't enjoy the slow burn of the film? I loved the pacing and atmosphere, almost as if the house was alive and going to swallow her whole at any minute. I loved it.

Jeff Allard said...

CB, I agree. West didn't really have enough of a film to stretch to feature length. The novelty of the retro atomsphere wore out quick for me.

PoT, West definitely had a great location to work with and he came up with some nice shots but the slow burn was a case of meandering and wheel spinning for me. A lot of horror fans dug this but I wasn't feeling it.

And one thing about the story for those who have seen the movie - why do the Ulman's go through the whole babysitting charade? For what they need Sam for, it seems like it would've been easier to simply kidnap someone than to go through a whole cat and mouse game that could've been bypassed.