MOVIE - “House of the Devil”
DIRECTOR – Ti West
WRITER – Ti West
SIX DEGREES OF CAST & CREW
‑At one point, Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) makes a panicking phone call to 911 only to be berated by the operator for making an unnecessary call. The voice of that phone operator is Lena Dunham, the 26-year-old wunderkind writer/director/actress known for the film Tiny Furniture and the television series Girls, currently on HBO. As for Donahue, she was in the 2008 underground worm monster movie The Burrowers with the brilliant Clancy Brown.
‑Speaking of brilliant, the supporting characters in this movie are pretty awesome. Mr. and Mrs. Ulman are genre legends. Mr. Ulman is Tom Noonan, who was Cain (the big‑bad in Robocop 2). He was also Ferguson in The Wolfen, Frankenstein in The Monster Squad (!!!) and Francis Dollarhyde in Manhunter (reprised by Ralph Fiennes in Red Dragon). Mrs. Ulman is Mary Woronov, who got her start in Andy Warhol’s performance art movies before becoming the designated lady weirdo of the 70’s and early 80’s in such films as Rock and Roll High School (as Miss Togar, who she would repirese in Alan Arkush’s Shake, Rattle and Roll alongside Renee Zellweger and Howie Mandell), Eating Raoul (as Mary Bland), and Calamity Jane in Death Race 2000. As for the third major (non Greta Gerwig or AJ Bowen) player, it’s Dee Wallace, who you will know as the mother from Cujo, the mom from Critters, Karen in The Howling, Lynne from The Hills Have Eyes, AND the mom from E.T. She’s played a lot of epic mothers, and is a very nice lady in real life.
‑House of the Devil is a throw-back all the way. The movie is believed to be set in 1983, judging by the soundtrack’s use of the song “One Thing Leads To Another” by The Fixx. The movie was shot on 16mm film, which accounts for the 80’s look, and was shot using techniques popularized in the 80’s, such as zooming in on characters rather than using a dolly shot. The movie was “based on true events” in true 80’s fashion (it was completely made up), ties into the Satanic panic of the era, and even contains a nod to the Patrick Dempsey flick Loverboy. House of the Dead was also deliberately released on VHS (in a big clamshell case) as a publicity stunt; the last major movie to be released on VHS for the home video market was 2005’s A History of Violence.
Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) is a college student, and like most college students, she’s broke and needs some rent money for the new apartment she’s found. When Sam finds a flier looking for a babysitter, she takes one look at the money and decided that she’s completely interested. After the caller initially flakes out, eventually Sam gets the job and gets her roommate Megan (Greta Gerwig) to drive her out to an isolated, big old country house.
That house is the home of the Ulmans (Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov), who are honestly too old to have a child needing babysitting. As it turns out, their flier was a lie of sorts. Turns out they didn’t need a babysitter, but someone to watch their ailing mother. That’s not all that’s weird, either. Turns out, there are more secrets in this house than simply the elderly woman locked into her upstairs bedroom.
As it turns out, someone’s got plans for Samantha the babysitter.
You have to give all the credit in the world to director Ti West. From a style standpoint, he absolutely nails the look and feel of an 80’s horror movie. From the 80’s pop soundtrack (circa 1983 via The Fixx’s “One Thing Leads To Another”) to the shooting techniques, it’s all right. For instance, rather than dolly shots, they do camera zooms. Rather than shooting on digital and dirtying it up, they shoot on 16mm film stock. While there are some minor anachronisms, they’re not the sort of thing someone not from Connecticutwould notice (like modern lights in outdoor shots, etc.). The important thing is the feel, and it feels perfect. It reads like it needs to, and that helps the movie work.
The movie’s cast is incredible. I mentioned the horror and movie legends above, but let’s go through them again. Dee Wallace, Mary Qoronov, Tom Noonan, and Greta Gerwig. These are just supporting characters! To their credit, Jocelin Donahue and AJ Bowen both hold the screen very well. Donahue, in particular, has to carry the weight of the movie on her skinny blonde shoulders, and she’s able to do so successfully. When you’re in a movie by yourself for long stretches of time, playing against noises and camera tricks, you have to act extra hard (but not too hard) to hold attention. She does that very well, and gives a great performance in the process. She’s a bit of the Jamie Lee Curtis style of Final Girl.
There are some pacing issues in the movie, and it seems to take awhile to get going, but once it kicks in and things get progressively weirder, it starts to work. The camera movements are slow and confident, with scenes given plenty of time to breathe. It’s shot in such a way as to emphasize the big emptiness of the house, and that helps increase the film’s feel of voyeurism. It’s like we’re watching her creep around the house, and that makes it even more chilling. This is not an ADD generation MTV edit slasher, this is Halloween crossed with Rosemary’s Baby.
It’s hard to judge House of the Devil on its own merits, since it’s such an homage to the 70’s and 80’s. The script is suitably loose, but is nothing special. However, as an overall entertainment piece, the movie works. If you have any love for the 80’s, you’ll probably like this movie, as it’s a dead-on homage to the hits of the VHS era.
RATING – 3 slices of pizza out of 5