***½/**** Image B Sound B Extras B
starring Jocelin Donahue, Tom Noonan, Mary Woronov, Dee Wallace
written and directed by Ti West
by Walter Chaw Her hair's a little longer, but she's a dead ringer for Karen Allen from Starman (with a touch of Brooke Adams from Invasion of the Body Snatchers thrown in), this girl dancing to The Fixx's classic "One Thing Leads to Another," Walkman clapped to her ears, in a creepy house in the middle of nowhere. Samantha (Jocelin Donahue, a real find) is there because she answered one of those tear-away babysitting ads posted outside her dorm, and who cares if it's not really a kid the guy, Mr. Ulman (Tom Noonan), wants her to look after but instead a demented old mother-in-law socked away in the attic*--he's giving her four hundred bucks so he and his wife (Mary Woronov) can enjoy the lunar eclipse. I know what you're thinking, but Ti West's gorgeous ode to '80s exploitation shockers comes off as more than mere pomo exercise or homage; The House of the Devil is a lovingly crafted little gem that owes as much to Roman Polanski's paranoia trilogy and Bob Clark's Black Christmas. (Come to think of it, Donahue also bears a resemblance to Margot Kidder around the time of the latter and DePalma's Sisters.) Smarter than hell about its sources, it employs all of them to a full seventy minutes of unbearable tension capped by twenty minutes of payoff. It's the same ratio of foreplay-to-climax as Rosemary's Baby, and lo, The House of the Devil would play wonderfully on a double-bill with the same.
The long tracking shots are a dead giveaway, the static camera set-ups peering across doorways and crossroads identifying West as a real, live filmmaker working in genre. He has an eye for tableaux that frame Samantha alone--in front of a student-union building on a strangely deserted college campus, in a public toilet stall, as Mrs. Ulman admires Samantha's hair...again and again until Sam is so diminished and lonesome that, without literal exposition, we find that her character's been granted real human complexity. That scene where she dances to "One Thing Leads to Another" is one of the scariest in recent memory not for any tangible reason, not because it's some snarky commentary on the causality that drives this kind of horror flick, but because it places a person we care about in extreme solitude. Samantha, subtly, is established as the "chosen" one (like Rosemary, as it turns out, or like Night of the Living Dead's Judith), first by her new landlady (Dee Wallace), then by her prospective employer Ulman, both of whom tell her they preferred her over some other girl--as we should, as we do, so that what happens by the end has this awful feeling of, "Well, shit, who can blame it for choosing her, too?" We're complicit.
Watching The House of the Devil a second--then a third--time reveals it to be a meticulously-crafted clockwork contraption of cause and effect: transgression and punishment. Samantha's friend Megan (Greta Gerwig) plays a prank, steals a few candies, and is shown her fate early and brutally enough that when Samantha breaks a vase or goes exploring places that are off-limits, we're pretty sure the cost of her knowledge will be commensurately grave. The performances are uniformly exceptional, Noonan's verging on astonishing at points (watch his eyes during the kitchen scene), and the aggregate of the ensemble's work leads to that ineffable feeling of sadness that infuses the very best horror films. Produced by Larry Fessenden's Glass Eye Pix, The House of the Devil reminds of Fessenden's own turns behind the camera (Wendigo in particular) in its icy patience, sure, but mostly in its absolute understanding of how to use negative space to evoke the things that are truly scary to people. Not the Devil--the house. Not the killing--the finality of the death of your friends. And not the dark--the shadows. The House of the Devil is at once modern and archetypal, nostalgic and contemporary. It's full of meat and marrow. I'm going in again.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
A hard one to judge on an A/V level, given West's mission to replicate the feel of a film made on a shoestring in the slasher-rich '80s, let me say that The House of the Devil looks on Blu-ray exactly like a movie shot in 16mm probably should, especially after being wilfully aged to suggest something you'd pop into a VCR circa 1986. What I love about the picture's home-video launch is that in addition to the standard Blu-ray/DVD releases, there's a clamshell-packaged VHS edition in what is perhaps the one instance in recent memory that such a marketing ploy makes sense. As for the 1.78:1, 1080p transfer, owing to intentions, the image is coarsely grainy but suitably filmlike, only occasionally betraying a difficult compression in a bit of chroma banding. Colour is faded, if evocative, in the fashion of a worn-out videocassette while black level has a tendency to crush that's seemingly purposeful, a way of emphasizing all that negative space. For the most part, it's perfect in its studied imperfection. Ditto the 5.1 DTS-HD audio (misreported as DD 5.1 on the packaging), which falls far short of utilizing the discrete soundstage to its potential but delivers the stings and murmurs with a nice logic and volume.
West and Donahue combine for the first of two yak-tracks and speak at gratifying length about the difficulties and rewards of tailoring the picture to a certain aesthetic. I was especially stricken to learn that each considered the aforementioned Fixx classic to be a moldy-oldy largely inscrutable to their ears and in need of excavation and shepherding. Phrases like "hard to understand" and "weird" clarify exactly how old I wish not to appear to the cool kids. West and Donahue have fun with the skinny jeans and recall a rehearsal schedule that kept film costs down. A second commentary teams the returning West with sound guy Graham Resnick and producers Larry Fessenden and Peter Phok for a congenial romp featuring many recollections of the genesis and conception of the project. As bosses go, Fessenden sounds like a dream, and it can't be any accident besides that he's been behind some of the most vital independent filmmaking in any genre over the last decade. "Deleted Scenes" (7 mins., SD) extends a couple of moments and offers one extra shot of minor discomfort, while "In the House of the Devil" (14 mins., SD) takes its cue from a few Kim Ki-duk extras in presenting a cluster of behind-the-scenes footage without any narration or organizing principle. Finally, "Behind the House of the Devil" (5 mins., HD) has West revealing, unsurprisingly (to his credit), his chief influences--Polanski and Kubrick--and contains brief soundbites from Donahue and the awesome Greta Gerwig that add not a whole lot, though I sure like watching them talk. A trailer for The House of the Devil in SD rounds out the presentation. Originally published: May 19, 2010.
*Of all the parents of The House of the Devil, the most honoured might be Hitchcock's ode to mothers secreted away, Psycho. return