The House of the Devil
Directed by Ti West
Starring Jocelin Donahue
Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming
The 31 Days of Halloween rolls on with a horror movie review. This is likely one you haven’t heard of, as it pretty much went under the radar in it’s 2009 release and subsequent 2010 DVD release. It’s now available on Netflix instant streaming and more people are beginning to take notice. The film is a modern one, but if nobody told you that, you’d think it was straight out the early 1980’s.
That’s the intent of course, as Ti West has set out to make an homage to the suspenseful horror films of days gone by. Suspense in the true sense of the word too, not the shaky cameras or spooky ghosts that pass for suspense in garbage like Paranormal Activity. The slow, brooding quality of this film makes it stand out from other modern efforts. Everything from the sets and the tone, harken back to the classic horror films of a few decades ago. They even shot the movie in 16mm film to give it that texture.
What’s great about this film is not that it’s a throwback, but that it’s done right. There have been plenty of movies doing “vintage” style but they usually aren’t done effectively or it’s painfully obvious that they’re trying to seem like an old movie, while using modern digital process. Of course sometimes the acting is terrible too, as in the case of the similarly named House of the Wolfman. Thankfully The House of the Devil doesn’t have any of those glaring flaws.
Aside from the setting, tone and production, this movie manages to strike the right chords with just about everything else as well. It’s a rather simple story of a girl named Samantha who is desperate to get out of her college dorm which she shares with a roommate from hell. She finds the perfect apartment, but she’s short on cash. Luckily she stumbles across an ad for a babysitter and soon finds herself in a house out in the middle of nowhere about to make some serious money for one night’s job. It sounds almost too good to be true… Because it is.
One of the other aspects that makes this movie so well done is that the characters act believable, for the most part. When Samantha arrives at the old house, her friend tells her to leave because these people seem a bit kooky. When Samantha finds out she’s not even there to really be a babysitter, she objects and plans to leave. It takes some serious convincing to get her to stay. Her friend is outraged, but agrees to go along with it because Samantha needs the money.
When things start to get scary, Samantha does things we all do when we get creeped out. She doesn’t bravely head into the scary basement or forget to lock the doors. Instead, she turns on all the lights in the house. When things go even further awry, she grabs a knife from kitchen. It’s all simple stuff, but usually when I find myself yelling at the screen in these sorts of movies, the lead characters never do the logical stuff. Samantha, for the most part, does.
The film runs about an hour and a half, but spends the first full hour and ten minutes building up the tension. Not with hamfisted plot devices or over the top theatrics, but simple and effective scary motifs. There are a couple “cheap scares” but they’re kept to a minimum and while there is one rather graphic bit of violence that’s unexpected in the first half, for the most part there isn’t much going on. I’ve heard some people say this is boring, but I found it anything but. In fact, I think this portion of the movie is easily the strongest.
Uncomfortable is the name of the game and the film does a great job of creating lots of uncomfortable moments, without spiraling into the need for anything more than atmosphere. Creating the proper mood and feeling throughout, helps drive the narrative into a position where you start to just feel your own skin crawl a bit. It’s not overwhelmingly apparent where things are going and in a lot of ways your mind conjures up something worse than what will inevitably come to pass.
Tom Noonan is convincing as a creepy old guy, without being over the top or campy. He’s just creepy enough to make you wonder, but not so much of an oddball that you’d question why anyone would stay in his house. There are other actors and they do good, but most of the film is about Samantha and the house. Surprisingly this is NOT a haunted house movie. Yes, there IS something up in this house, but it has nothing to do with the house itself.
Actually that’s probably why the chills are effective. They evoke that same feeling you’ve likely had in your own house at some point. What was the creaking noise? Why am I getting spooked over a dark room? All houses are creepy when in the right frame of mind. This is what Samantha feels and she takes control of the situation several times, reminding herself to “get a grip”. It’s the looming dread that makes this film so much fun.
Finally in the last 20 minutes or so it becomes a tour de force of mayhem. There’s quite a bit of delivery after all the hype, but again, even so there’s restraint as well. I won’t spoil exactly what’s going on in the house, but suffice to say the creepy people are creepy for a reason. We don’t learn the specifics, but we’re given enough to understand.
The last bit is fairly graphic, but it’s never torture porn or blood just for the sake of blood. Some folks have said this is a “Grindhouse” style movie, but I don’t really agree. This is much more subtle and restrained. This is not Rob Zombie shoving every cliche and creepy thing into a frame to the point where it becomes a parody devoid of any real horror.
The ending isn’t exactly the most satisfying. I’d say the last 2 minutes of the film undercut some of the overall effect, but it certainly doesn’t ruin the film by any means. Did an act of God intervene or was there something more sinister that’s the cause of the final predicament? We don’t get the answer, but the question is a worthy ending if not entirely as rewarding as perhaps it could have been with some slightly different choices.
Anywho, this is definitely a fun little horror movie that’s a great trip back to when horror movies were good. There’s scares, there’s a chilling soundtrack, there’s a dash of gore and plenty of suspense. It’s just the right balance of all the core elements to make this a perfect movie to watch in the dark with a big bowl of popcorn on a blustery fall night. Add this one to your Netflix queue for this Halloween season!