The House of the Devil
Directed by Ti West
Released October 30, 2009
The only horror movie being released this year at Halloween time doesn’t actually belong in 2009. Cell phones and UGGs are swapped out for landlines and acid washed jeans. Director Ti West describes it not as an homage but as an “accurate early 1980s period piece.” His film is a retro, subtler unfolding of the horrors that lurk within an enormous, secluded house where unknowing babysitter Sam has agreed to spend the night. West affectionately describes the house as a character, and notes that the “delayed suspense makes it so that you’re aligned to think nothing’s ever going to happen,” therefore making the scary scenes all the more terrifying. It’s a movie that will keep you on the edge of your seat, and even if you stay planted there the entire time, it’s still quite a nerve-racking experience.
The film’s isolation of its characters, who drive for seemingly endless hours into the woods to find this spooky house, is the prime reason that it works. It’s not that there’s no one to call in the event of an emergency, but that there’s simply nothing anywhere nearby, so help would take a hopelessly long time to arrive. It’s already established long before Sam (Jocelin Donahue) convinces her best friend Megan (Greta Gerwig) to drive her out to the home of the mysterious Mr. Ulman (Tom Noonan) that there’s something creepy about this babysitting assignment, and only a desperate college student with bills to pay would agree to do it. Much of the film is spent setting up the scene, but once Sam has stepped foot into the house and met its creepy caretakers, there’s no break from the vast, not-so-empty space where Sam is hopelessly trapped. Even if she wasn’t entirely sure that something was afoot, the film’s title reveals that Mr. and Mrs. Ulman aren’t your friendly neighborhood parents, and that’s one house you don’t want to be in.
“The House of the Devil” is an impressive undertaking and finished product, shooting for a reported budget of under one million dollars, and using mostly Connecticut-based crew members because of the location of the house. West describes the irony of the house not actually being secluded at all as a “super bummer,” but the film makes it work. Indie film star Gerwig (“Baghead,” “Hannah Takes the Stairs”) is quick to point out that “no one in a horror film knows they’re in a horror film, and the more jolly you can be, the more horrifying it will end up.” She also credits the genre for its potential in helping unknown actors and actresses break through. “People enjoy the pornography of horror, and you don’t big stars for that. As an actor, it’s a really nice way to focus yourself because there’s always stuff happening and it’s open-ended. You always have activities and a way to direct your energy.” A small cast and four very juicy roles provided the opportunity for relative newcomers Donahue and Gerwig to act alongside veteran actors Noonan (“Manhunter,” “Synecdoche, New York”) and Mary Woronov (“Eating Raoul,” “The Devil’s Rejects”).
The film manages to be frightening and enthralling without succumbing to overdone horror conventions and overextending too many lines of believability. The family Sam is babysitting for is creepy, and that’s all that’s important. Incorporating the devil into the mix was merely a reference to a big fear from the time in which the movie its set. West believes that “no one’s worried about the Devil anymore, there’s much more to worry about now.” Noonan recalls the “real emergencies of serial killers in the 70s and 80s,” though West notes that the “statistic of devil worshippers is actually so low, it’s just sensationalized.” West admits that “you can’t make a movie for everyone, it’s very polarizing. There’s either a strong hatred or strong appreciation for style.” West names “The Shining” as his favorite horror film, describing it “like a crazy person made that movie.” Gerwig, who was protected from horror films that were fetishized in her house growing up, describes West’s influences as “Polanski and atmospheric Hitchcock.” Most of the film’s effective thrills, like in many of the two acclaimed directors’ films, come simply from waiting to see what’s lurking around the corner. The existence or real-life prominence of satanic cults is almost inconsequential because, after all, the devil is in the details, and this film is rich with them.
Friday, October 30, 2009
The House of the Devil