In a move that mimics the speedy arrival on 80's video library shelves of many a horror title (usually circumventing any censorial attention), Ti West's remarkably acclaimed throwback shocker, The House Of The Devil, appears on UK Blu-ray practically simultaneously with its cinematic unveiling. And, in a totally self-indulgent and nostalgic homage to the era that informs this Satanic creep-fest, it even makes an appearance on VHS tape as well in a limited edition gift-set! You know what, I like that! Clunky old cases and cassettes with some rattly weight to them. “Movies in a box ... from CBS Fox!” - who remembers that catchy tagline, then?
The man behind the lacklustre, but gory Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever and the feeble bat-horror, The Roost, turns his horror-savvy attention to one of the sub-genres that used to swell its ranks in the gritty 70's and the early splat-tastic 80's - the occult, and those nefarious souls who practice it.
Influenced chiefly by something even earlier, in Polanski's 1968 chiller, Rosemary's Baby, The House Of The Devil recalls the brief high-point, after The Exorcist and The Omen made Him Downstairs popular, for all things diabolical that took in movies as diverse as The Devil's Rain, The Mephisto Waltz, Race With The Devil (DVD reviewed separately) and Burnt Offerings. As well as Gory George's seminal culture-shock, Night Of The Living Dead, which even appears on the TV screen in West's main mansion-house location at one point, for the evening's Fright-Fest, accompanied by the famous Wilhelm Scream (for those of you in the know!), there are even little atmospheric nods towards Argento's classic Suspiria in this tale of a young woman virtually lured into an isolated house under the pretence of babysitting for an evening, only to discover that she has been hideously duped and is, in true Wicker Man style, being prepped for something far more sinister. So now you know the sort of ball-park that West is playing in. But this is no monster-in-the-dark picture, that's for sure. And nor do we get any malevolent Satanic chanting, though you can look forward to the odd pentagram cropping up now and again.
Disillusioned with the squalor and poverty of her digs, college girl Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) spots the opportunity for a quick buck when she lands a gig cradle-watching for some wealthy mansion owners on the outskirts of town. But, pretty soon, she discovers that she has not entirely been told the truth. It isn't actually a baby she is supposed to looking after for the night, but an aged mother secreted up the stairs at the top of the rambling old colonial home, that just happens to be conveniently situated across the road from a cemetery. With the shock smoothed over by some persuasively earnest spiel from Mr. Ullman, played by Tom (Manhunter/Robocop II) Noonan, and, of course, a massively hiked financial incentive, Sam eventually caves-in and takes the job. And so begins a long night of suspense as things go bump upstairs and something much nastier than a decrepit old crone begins to let the black cat out of the bag.
Much, as I've already alluded to, is made of House Of The Devil's hark-back to the 80's, but, truth be told, the look, style and feel of the movie is much more akin a TV movie from the back end of the decade before. Slow-burn build-up, shocks that genuinely unnerve and an attempt to gather steam and vigour only as the story moves along, coupled with a sincere desire to invest the characters with real personality and dialogue that isn't “knowing”, ironic or post-modern and a refusal to over-blow the climax with fire and brimstone all help engender an eerie and claustrophobic one-night ordeal with the sort of tone and sense of menace that John Carpenter brewed up for Halloween. Even the lensing of the film, shot on 16mm, is a direct reference to the bleak, lived-in quality of the prints from the era. The basic one-set location is also very reminiscent of the Brit-thriller Fright, with Susan George and Ian Bannen playing cat-and-mouse among the shadows, and this closing-walls syndrome works very well with West's own use of shadow and nerve-jangling noises. The filmmaker doesn't try to sidestep cliché either. But, in his deliberate evocation of genre traditions, these familiar tropes actually feel a lot fresher than the usual gamut of clinically protracted torture-porn that passes for horror these days. Many newer fans of the genre may even be bored by the set-up and comparative lack of pay-off and, in truth, there were moments when even I, myself, began to lament the pedestrian approach taken ... and I love the older genre offerings far more than the newer ones! But West's film is actually better savoured on a second viewing, even though you know what the outcome will be.
I thought that The House Of The Devil even played a little bit like an extended episode of the old Hammer House Of Horror TV show which, as far as I am concerned, only adds to the flavour.
The film takes a deliberate age to get going which, of course, is no bad thing. We get to understand Sam and her mindset, which is especially integral considering how it begins to unravel as the night wears on, and the dastardly clues mount up. The plot device of having all this occur on an evening when a full eclipse of the Moon is set to happen is nicely handled in that West doesn't really let us in on the secret behind it all. He just doesn't want to explain all that much to us. There are many people who won't like that. Those who complain about the ambiguous climax of The Thing will probably purse their lips in consternation about this, but that's the name of the game. West, by his own admission, likes things to be obscure and left sort of hanging. And whilst I totally agree with this ethic in many cases, here in House Of The Devil, I will concede that there could be room for just a little more clarity and the whys and the wherefores.
West, who wrote the screenplay as well, handles his limited cast with maturity and a distinct lack of over-direction - the way things develop there would have been a lot more hysterics encouraged by some other filmmakers. Donahue's character does get to do a couple of rather unlikely things, however - such as putting her Walkman on and dancing around this creepy old house, oblivious to whatever else might be occurring around her - but she gives the part her all and, later on, really suffers for her art ... as all true horror-heroines must. She has a very appealing look of the young Margot Kidder, which is fine for a nice Black Christmas reference, but perhaps even more so of the delectable Karen (Starman) Allen, as well. Watching her creeping around the house supplies plenty of authentic shudders. Even clutching a big Michael Myers-style knife, Sam paints a pretty vulnerable vision as she probes dark recesses, treads carefully on those creaky stairs and strains to hear what lurks behind closed doors. And the house is as much a star of the film as our beguiled damsel - full of nooks and crannies, halls and rooms and landings. There is a nice little touch when Samantha enters a darkened parlour and her hand scrabbles around on the wall, like a spider, to find a light switch that isn't there, which is then echoed much later on with far more drastic results. The film gets as much tension from the things that don't jump out of the shadows at you as from the things that do.
So, as well as cranking out an Old School atmosphere of simmering dread and holding right back on the grue, West employs a couple of well-established genre faces from the past to back up Noonan's typically disturbing turn. For a kick-off we've got celebrated horror/SF scream-queen, Dee Wallace, making a cameo visit as the landlady who helps Sam out near the start. Still looking attractive, the girl from The Hills Have Eyes and The Howling and, of course, the suburban yummy-mummy in ET, is out of the picture, sadly, before you can blink. But then we have the man-faced demi-goddess of many a Z-grade exploitationer, Mary Woronov, appearing here, and resembling an even older and more wizened Geraldine Chaplin, as the black-garbed harridan who is the underling of the real matriarch of the household. Woronov had a hatchet-face even when she was younger, and she is distinctly unnerving here. Check out the slimy and unpleasant way in which she gets a little closer to Samantha when the two are left alone for a moment.
Samantha has a cute and dependable friend, but she is sadly so damn irritating that you just can't wait to get rid of her, yourself. The television presenters remarking upon the eclipse have that now-clichéd smarm done to a tee (“Tonight's Frightfest - ooh, spooky!”) and add something of a mocking wider scale to the babysitter's predicament as the night drags by. But it is, perhaps unsurprisingly, Tom Noonan, who provides all the best shivers. An absolute supremo at portraying oddballs, psychos, mesmerists and charlatans, the lanky actor here delivers some of the most warped, yet inordinately polite creeps that you can imagine. He is a past master at such things, of course, folding his soft voice around the most innocent of sentences, yet smothering each syllable with some virtually intangible layer of menace and subterfuge. Tall and gangly, like a preying mantis, he moves slowly but with modulated poise, his body semi-hunched and his face sort of buried earthward as though intimidated by his own height. But it is those eyes that do it every time. Big and doleful orbs of almost “loving death”, he shyly averts them as though he is utterly meek and mild but, once they flit up from beneath that pronounced brow, they confront you with the most penetrating gaze. His Mr. Ullman is the creepy neighbour that terrified you as a child, and yet he comes across as the nicest, most sympathetic person on the block. It is no wonder that Noonan has got to play some spectacular nut-jobs in his career.
TV movie ambience and a catatonic momentum really shouldn't make a great horror film, but West's housebound ordeal appeals to a certain demographic. Those who grew up with airings of those often flaccid, under-cooked coven-flicks will surely lap this up. But fans of the quintessential babysitting nightmare shtick should also find some bygone charm to the film. For my money, it's sedentary pace actually contrives to place you in the house right alongside Samantha, with things happening seemingly in real-time until a certain point when logic flies out of the window. And it is here when the problem occurs, with a rushed final act that leaves too many questions hanging in the air and has you thinking that, like Samantha, you've just missed out on something absolutely crucial to the plot. West obviously wants us to feel this jarring change of thrust and, once again, it puts you in totally the same place of confused terror as our protagonist, but ... on, I don't know, it just seems to leave wanting. This finale smacks of too little, too late to me, which is a shame after all that careful and considered build-up.
To be frank, I believe that The House Of The Devil is a little over-praised. The packaging and all the advertising blurb heralds it as being one of the “best” shockers of recent times, but you don't really need me to tell you that it falls some way short of the accolades being heaped upon it. The direction is intimate and assured. The stingers, by and large, work, bolstered by being few and far between for maximum effect. The acting, especially from Donahue and the always wacky and weird Tom Noonan is very good indeed. But the fact that we can clearly see where it is all going and that the finale, as refreshingly underplayed as it is, just lacks the requisite bite, despite the sudden change in pace, mean that many may well end up just shrugging their shoulders and wondering what all the fuss was about. Now, despite these little misgivings, I really enjoyed West's film. It makes for a great and properly unsettling experience, even if you might just be left wishing for, well, a touch more horror at the end of the day.
It is worth mentioning that the film actually opens with titles that are fabulously retro. The credit piece even has the copyright date, in Roman numerals, latched-on beneath the film's title in a clear homage to those old, threadbare low budgeters of the period. And West employs some smirk-inducing freeze-frames during the credit sequence as we follow who will become our main character around the chilly-looking campus grounds, and even a snazzy sudden zoom that serves no purpose other than to capture the vintage vogue. This all reveals a potent authenticity that West absolutely nails.
Viewers should be advised that the film makes use, during one nightmarish sequence, of intense, flashing strobe-like imagery. The disc packaging makes a note of this, as well, but in writing so small it would take serious scrutiny to locate, so I feel obliged to further reiterate this warning here. I would also like to point out that the main feature of this UK disc plays fine on a US PS3, although the special features will not.
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