Thursday, October 2, 2014

The House of the Devil

If you ask me who the next great horror director is right now, I'd say Ti West. In an age when Hollywood is churning out remakes, torture porn, found footage, and video game-style zombies, his approach harkens back to a more classical style: restrained, suspenseful, low-key, and deliberate but with a modern sensibility and (the right amount of violence used in an effective way) that keeps its relevant and impactful.

The House of the Devil (2009) has all these qualities. I'm not entirely sold on the third act when all the questions are answered and the plot devolves into a violent chase, but otherwise, it's a remarkably assured and mature effort. It's an exercise in foreboding buildup and tension; it's one big pressure cooker, and even if the payoff isn't entirely satisfying, the journey itself is more than worth it.

College student Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) needs money and answers an add requesting the services of a babysitter. Her friend Megan (Greta Gerwig) drives her to the creepy house in the middle of nowhere, and there, Samantha meets Mr. and Mrs. Ullman (Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov, already you know something is off about them). See, it's the night of a full lunar eclipse, and the Ullmans don't want to miss it, but someone needs to mind Mrs. Ullman's elderly mother. Don't worry, Mr. Ullman tells Samantha, she's up in bed, resting, and doesn't need to be bothered. We just need someone around, and you're perfect for what we need, Mr. Ullman says to Samantha. As soon as she's alone in the creepy house, Samantha begins to get spooked by things that go bump in the night, and after a while, the true nature of her employers is revealed.

With a title like The House of the Devil, plus an opening title card that tells us about belief in "abusive Satanic cults" back in the 1980s (when the movie is set), it's dead obvious what the true nature of the Ullman's are. Still, the film takes its time, refraining from plunging us immediately into the horror elements. The first act is spent getting to know Samantha, her desperation for the money, and establishing the down-to-earth setting. The world the movie presents us feels real or at least plausible, so when the horror elements do creep in, they're more effective and believable.

For West, it's a bold move that once Samantha is on her own at the house, not much action happens. She wanders around the darkened rooms, tries to watch TV, orders pizza, and gets creeped out. There are little hints here and there some things are off that get us paying attention: the revelation that it is an old woman and not child that needs babysitting, the un-truths the Ullmans tell Samantha, and other details like, why the Ullmans have a bunch of photographs of strangers stashed away in a closet. The tension ramps up after an encounter between Megan and Victor (A.J. Bowen), the Ullman's adult son, and from that point on, the film has us, and we're waiting for the powder keg to erupt.

The standout suspense sequence occurs when Samantha thinks she might be hearing someone upstairs in the attic. She tiptoes up the narrow staircase, up through the shadows, and then sees feet moving underneath the door. It's so effective because there's no way of knowing who or what is behind that door. At this point, it could be anyone or anything, and while by this point we've figured out what kind of people the Ullmans are, we aren't certain of their aims.

From there, The House of the Devil runs headlong to a bloody climax, involving a few cut throats, some gunfire, and some blood and gore as a bizarre ceremony and as escape attempt occur. It's a bit of letdown following all that buildup because it's ultimately nothing we haven't seen before, but as action, it works well enough. The movie is carried by West's direction and some solid performances, especially Noonan, who has the awkward creep style down pat. If nothing else, the movie reminds us not accept any gigs from the guy who played the Tooth Fairy, no matter how nice he might seem.

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