Review: The House of the Devil (2009)
Now this is a horror film. The kind that builds upon an atmosphere of dread. More or less a filmed fear of the dark. Where the stillness and darkness around you feels solid, like the chill could reach around and strangled you. It obviously holds a certain fondness for details of both 80’s satan themed flicks and the ambiance of the art horror film of the late 60’s/early 70’s. But director Ti West doesn’t replicate scenes, he raises the mood, the spirit of the films aforementioned (perhaps of someone who grew up with former then experienced the latter as a adult, bringing two parts together). He enjoys them, their lost inventions and ideas—oh that title card—, and he brings a nurtured flower of love for these films to us. And he is almost inhumanly patient. And we are better for it. (though we might not realize it at first)
This is one of those films where not a great deal of movement happens, either from the camera or the actors. Words are said just enough so as to be necessary to keep the characters knowable and understandable, and no more. But otherwise the camera lingers, and we start to get more involved with the people we see, if only by sheer choice. It’s a babysitter forced by monetary reasons to take a strange client, and eventually haggles to a bargain too good to be true, and it slowly dawns upon us it is. That’s about it, plot wise, but the way the characters settle in, and the deafening silence crams your ears, I don’t even care. It actually takes a good while before we even get to that plot point mentioned above. It’s exceedingly rare (and glorious) for any film to so involve a character with the audience without showing anything overt.
I just love the way this film is shot and edited (all by Ti). The scene where the camera sees the main character Sam dial a pay phone„ walking of into the distance, hear it ring back, she looks around, walks slowly and uneasily back to it, and answers it one unbroken shot (the camera barely pans) is something that I think just defines the film. It’s not afraid to just let thing unspool at it’s leisure. Yet it’s never boring, or playing with boredom, it’s just entrancing. Of course it’s not stupid, and it does give us a spectaular ending, and some careful and un-cheap startles. But even after the first major scare, it goes back and lingers, and while we don’t see any obvious danger, we’re still wondering what could could be out there. The dark is creeping…
Jocelin Donahue does a great job as Sam, which is pretty important since she’s the only person we see for 80% of the movie. She has this naturalistic presence, but with a strong under-substance that she doesn’t fade into the background like most of these character types. This film also shows almost nothing is better than a young woman dancing to music to alleviate her troubles. After all that claustrophobic isolation, to see her running to the house on “one thing leads to another” (on a walkman, no less) is positively sublime. Of course this sets her up opening another pocket of the house she wasn’t meant to discover. The brass folly of humanity always opening more destructive paths, as it were.Tried and true scary storytelling, which again works so well because Sam and the camera have a almost intimate relationship, drawing us in.
I think the scariest think in here is the sound. It just hints at the possibilities. Sam has a knife and does nothing with it for at least a half hour, but the whistling wind and creaking stairs make you wish she could bring everything to a still. Then there’s that beating heart.. oh wait, that’s yours. You think you know what’s around that corner, in that door, but it’s nothing.. or is it? Your brain doesn’t know, everything seems tangible, but it’s not, then it is. That damn sound; oh, it’s not what it does, it’s what it doesn’t do.
Eventually something very much does happen (the title all but guarantees it) and things change. I don’t quite think this final section of the film is as scary as the preceding part. It’s not lame by any stretch of the imagination, but when the general majority of the film blows away almost every other horrific peer I’ve seen and the ending comes closer to the hurried and frantic editing used by most horror films (though not nearly as jumbled, to it’s credit) it’s a bit of a dip. But by no means even close to a let down, some films never deliver on anything, or even start to promise something good, and the fact that it builds up so magnificently and delvers well, it’s a success.
Even if you don’t remember every scene you will recall the indelible dent of fear lurking in your brain when watching this film. And you will exhale a long breath, remembering how this film deliberately and mercilessly took everything you thought you had seen or know about horror films, and tuned them inside out by sheer execution. Breathe calmly…