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The House of the Devil- Review

The House of the Devil- Review

Aug 2, 2010

reviewed by Danny
directed by Ti West, 2009
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Ti West’s camera is smarter than his characters.  Note how, when young Samantha, desperately in need of money for a new apartment, walks past a job-postings board,  the camera stays behind and allows Samantha to move off-screen as it zooms in on the “Babysitter Needed” posting.  It is only the first sign of how sharp the camera is and of just how much dramatic irony West is going to filter this classic horror story through.  Later, the camera will show us a room full of bloody corpses that Samantha won’t find out about until it is way too late.  It is commonplace in a horror film for the audience to be at least slightly more aware of the danger than the protagonist, but in the case of The House of the Devil, we are not only aware that the characters are in a horror film, we know exactly what kind of horror film it is.  And, we know it is going to end badly.

After the creepiest hire in the history of horror films, Samantha has the job and finds herself alone in a large house while the “parents” go off to watch a rare lunar eclipse.  As aware viewers, we know that there is a significance to the lunar eclipse, we know that Tom Noonan is more than a bit creepy, and we know that the best friend that dropped her off isn’t going to be coming back to pick her up.  Samantha only comes by these realizations slowly, and the film allows her to gradually become aware of her situations, to gradually grow more and more tense, and, finally, to become afraid.  The lyrical pacing lets the viewer progress with Samantha, even though we know where the road leads.  In the end, we are frightened for her and with her.

Part of the fallout from the recent success of the “torture porn” sub-genre (Hostel, the Saw films) is that many critics and horror-film lovers are waxing nostalgic for the days when “less was more.”  It is easy to find articles and forum posts discussing how much better horror films were when they chose not to show the viewer every grisly detail.  Well, here is a film for those horror fans.  The House of the Devil is set in the 1980s, but its influences are much older.  Its subject matter is straight out of the 1970s, but its tool set is older still.  Think Val Lewton or Todd Browning or, closer to the period and subject, Rosemary’s Baby.  Up until the absolute crisis moment when Samantha is actually in the hands of those wanting to sacrifice her, West avoids slamming down the gas pedal.  The film stays on cruise control.  Sure, her friend is killed violently on-screen, but the whole scene is less than a minute long.  We see the bodies of the family that really lived in the creepy house, but only for just long enough for us to realize what we are seeing.  The rest of the time we are treated to Samantha wandering about the house, slowly noticing that things aren’t right.  Then, the killers come for her and the film explodes.

Those late scenes where Samantha is fighting for her life, showing toughness and awareness we weren’t prepared for, are gripping.  It has been a long time since I rooted for a horror-film protagonist the way I rooted for Samantha.  Her encounter with the devil/demon is agonizing mostly because we have taken the journey with her and not been pulled out by constant beheadings, slashing of Achilles’ tendons, or buckets of blood.

If the film had ended after the encounter with the devil and his cult, The House of the Devil would easily move in to my short list of must-see horror films.  It doesn’t.  There is an unsatisfying epilogue clearly inspired by the classic films that the film references throughout.  The problem is that those denouements were often the weakest part of the classic films and the same is true here.  Still, even with an ending I could have done without, The House of the Devil is the best new horror film I’ve seen since Let the Right One In, and I recommend it without hesitation to film fans looking for a more lyrical and patient horror film.

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2 comments

  1. I won’t argue with ya about that kookie ending. It went from being a bunch of nuts to real supernatural and the twist of a beer cap. WTF!? I still liked it though.

  2. Kathy a.k.a. Spooky /

    This looks like it would be something I would enjoy watching. I grew up in the 80’s and enjoy 70’s horror 🙂

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