Friday, October 14, 2011

The House of the Devil

I don't think I have ever seen a haunted house movie the entire way through.  I haven't been avoiding the sub-genre, but that's just how things have worked out; I started to watch The Amityville Horror and the remake of The Haunting at different points, but I wound up not finishing them, for whatever reasons.  I thought I could break that trend with The House of the Devil, one of the better-reviewed, but still under the radar, horror movies of the past few years.  Heads up to haunted house movie fans: there is no haunted house here.  Whoops.  I looked at the cover art and made an assumption without reading up on the flick.  Even going in with completely inaccurate expectations, though, I thought this one was pretty good.

Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) has a pretty awful college roommate.  She is a slovenly sex fiend, and uses the old "sock on the doorknob" signal frequently and without regard for Samantha's needs.  Samantha needs a new place to live, and she finds one.  The only problem is that she needs to pay the first month's rent in advance, and she has about six dollars to her name.  What's a college girl to do?  If your answer was "strip," you probably should be right.
Samantha opts to look for jobs that would pay her to degrade herself in entirely different ways.  Specifically, she finds a flyer asking for a babysitter.  She calls the number and speaks to Mr. Ulman (Tom Noonan) and, while he seems awfully weird, she agrees to take the job.  Of course, Samantha doesn't have a car, so she persuades her buddy, Megan (Greta Gerwig) to drive her out to the remote and isolated home.  Once there, Mr. Ulman reveals that there is no child to be babysat; the job is instead to be on hand in case his elderly mother-in-law has a problem.  Ulman reasoned that he wasn't getting any bites with his ads for "elderly assistance," so he would fib a bit.  Right off the bat, Ulman seems odd and has lied.  Megan sees that as a sign to cut bait and run, but Samantha is persuaded to stay with the promise of $400 for the night.  So...a creepy liar promises to overpay you for an easy and simple job, and you don't think twice?  Huh.  Maybe I should have mentioned that there is a lunar eclipse that night that the Ulmans are eager to witness.  Okay, maybe something weird is going on, right?  Or perhaps I should have referenced the prologue, which states that, during the 80s, 70% of American adults believed in the existence of Satanic cults, while another 30% believed that evidence of the cults was covered up by the US government.  In that case, Samantha seems pretty screwed.
This is as reassuring as Noonan can look

One of the first things about The House of the Devil that you will notice is how much director Ti West wanted this to look and feel like an 80s movie.  The clothes, the hair, the neighborhood, the cassette Walkman all scream early eighties, but it goes deeper than that; West uses vintage 80s title fonts, freeze frames, and soundtracks to convey the era for this story.  West even goes so far as to include the overused horror movie claim that the film is based on true unexplained events; I've tried researching that claim, and I'm pretty sure he just threw it in to be vintage-y.  Even without those nice touches, I really liked Ti West's direction in The House of the Devil.  This isn't one of those horror movies where things jump out and startle you every few minutes; this is a slow-boiling suspenseful horror film.  You know something bad will happen, but it is revealed so subtly and so slowly that you begin to dread even the most inane things, like delivery pizza.  And with good reason.
Shades of things to come?

Granted, there is about an hour before anything definitely scary or spooky happens.  Until then, your enjoyment will depend on how engaged you are in the film.  I liked Samantha, I saw some creepy potential, and was absorbed as the story slowly unfolded.  If you haven't bought into the film early on, this first hour will positively drag and feel torturous.

While there weren't many actors, I enjoyed those I saw.  Jocelin Donahue started out as merely likeable (a tough enough task in any horror movie), but she proved to be a bit of a badass before the story ended.  Tom Noonan was uncomfortable when he tried to be normal, but his creepy moments were convincing.  Mary Woronov (of Death Race 2000 fame) was suitably awkward as Mrs. Ulman and Greta Gerwig was convincing as an 80s coed.  IMDb credits AJ Bowen as "Victor Ulman," although I don't recall him ever having a name in the film.  Anyway, he was kind of creepy, in a "who are you and what are you doing in this movie?" sort of way.  There is no overwhelming acting performance in this movie, but I liked that everyone was pretty understated, both as good guys and creepy Satanists. 

My main complaint with The House of the Devil is also something that I respect.  There is a significantly large chunk of the story left out of this movie.  We never learn who the young bearded man is.  We never learn exactly why these people are doing what they're doing.  Why did they need Samantha, but the other people we see are not worthy?  And what the hell is going on here?  Those questions bothered me a little, I admit, but I like the overall impression they create.  This isn't a movie where the bad guy will monologue his ludicrous plot; this is a horror movie that feels like something that could happen.  Well, maybe minus the weird priestess lady. 
Still, the actions of the Ulmans would have been absolutely out of left field if it wasn't for the mention of Satanic cults in the prologue.  Real life doesn't always have answers, but movies usually try to leave fewer gaping story holes than this film.

Admittedly, I went into this movie with a pretty inaccurate idea of what the film would be about.  I wasn't disappointed, though, and that speaks volumes to the accessibility of The House of the Devil.  It's a damned good homage to the classic pre-cheesy era of horror, and I thought the ending was pretty awesome.  There aren't many modern horror movies that build atmosphere and actually use suspense effectively, so this was a rather refreshing break from horror monotony for me.  This is the perfect movie to scare the crap out of people who hear noises when they are home alone, so recommend with caution.


  1. My biggest problem was (SPOILER ALERT?): Did she get the yellow house? This movie was clearly building up to the climax of getting the yellow house, yet we never know if she did. The creepy dude gave her $200 up front and I assume he walking up to pay her the second installment when she misuses the gun, right? I mean, I assume she got the yellow house. I just would have like a little more of a confirmation at the end.

  2. I guess that depends on your interpretation. Some casual viewers may presume that the Ulman house is the titular one "of the Devil," but what got her into this mess in the first place? She wanted to give her roommate more space to clutter and have sex on. In other words, good intentions. Well, we all know that it is the road to hell that is paved with good intentions. So she is traveling down a road to hell, with the yellow house as her destination. Therefore, the yellow house is, in fact, the House of the Devil. So, yeah, Ulman probably slipped the last $200 into her gaping skull wound.