Jocelin Donahue - Samantha Hughes
Tom Noonan - Mr. Ulman
Mary Woronov - Vivian Ulman
Greta Gerwig - Megan
A.J. Bowen - Victor Ulman
Dee Wallace - Landlady
Genre - Horror/Supernatural/Satanic
Running Time - 95 Minutes
The state of mainstream modern horror hasn't really made it all that fun to be a horror fan. Don't get me wrong, I will always be a huge horror fan in good times and in bad. But look at what horror has become recently. We have pointless remakes of films, that still stand the test of time, all in the name of money. We have unnecessary sequels, again, all in the name of money. And we have films that rather deal with style over substance, sacrificing story for blood and gore. I don't hate all of these modern films, but it's nice to watch a film where the story takes precedence over everything else for a change. This is the case in 2009's THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, where the plot leads up to the violence and brutality - not the other way around. It's pretty sad that for a film paying homage to 70s and 80s horror movies, it's the freshest horror film I've seen in a very long time.
Samantha Hughes (Jocelin Donahue) is a college sophomore who needs money and fast to pay the rent for her newly acquired apartment. And what does any 80s college girl do? No, not strip! That was the 90s! In the 80s, girls babysat, which is what Samantha decides to do. She ends up in the boonies to meet an eccentric couple called the Ulmans (Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov) at their home. They're upfront with Samantha, admitting that they lied about having a small child. Instead, Samantha must babysit for Grandma, who is asleep upstairs and not to be disturbed. All alone in this huge house, Samantha begins to snoop around out of boredom, finding out that strange things are going on at this house. Ironically, there's also this mysterious total lunar eclipse happening at the same time, although I doubt that has to do with anything...
THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL was an indie hit last year due to the fact that it was different than most modern genre efforts. It's all about story, atmosphere, build up, wasn't a remake or a sequel, and is a very good homage to what many call the Golden Era of horror - the 1970s and 1980s. While it's not a perfect homage and does have it flaws, THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL is still a very well-made film.
The story by Ti West is based on 70s and 80s horror. The fact that it even takes place in the 1980s makes it welcome viewing. We have a babysitter in a haunting house that hints at Satanic stuff going on behind closed doors. It's like HALLOWEEN or WHEN A STRANGER CALLS mixed with ROSEMARY'S BABY, THE OMEN, or even THE AMITYVILLE HORROR. It's not self-aware. There's no quoting of other horror movies to make itself sound clever. This is a straightforward creepy little horror film that takes itself seriously and wants to scare its viewers from sleeping in the night. It never feels like a cheap imitation of an earlier film. Hell, if someone told me this was made in 1983 or so, I probably would have believed it. It captures the time and feel or 70s-80s horror very well.
What you've read in the plot is pretty much the entire screenplay for THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL. There are no real surprises and you pretty much know what to expect. The film moves at a very slow pace, focusing on building upon the horror rather than giving it all away within the first 15 minutes of the film, like a lot of modern horror films tend to do. As a matter of fact, besides a surprising moment [at least to me] within the 37-minute mark, nothing much happens until the last 15 minutes of the film [which are very violent and feel like an acid trip at times]. That's a rarity these days! And I know a lot of people who saw this complained about the film not being faster when it concerned the horror, but I personally enjoy the slow burn. In fact, THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL wouldn't be as effective if the film didn't take its time to set things up. I did have an issue with one part where Samantha just paced around the house and did much of nothing for like 5 to 7 minutes, boring me a bit. But other than that, I was drawn in and wanted to know what will happen.
I thought the slow build up allowed the characters to develop. It's rare for a horror film to have realistic characters, but Samantha and the other characters in the film acted like human beings and spoke dialogue that sounded more like real life than reel life. It allows the viewer to understand these people, mainly Samantha, who we watch struggle with her inconsiderate dorm mate, her desperate need for a job to support herself, and how she's willing to stay in a strange house just to make money that will make ends meet. It's the horrors of real life that eventually change into the horrors that only a film would unleash until its created world.
And I enjoyed that the idea of Satanism was used in this film. Back in the late 60s to the late-80s, the idea of the Devil being the epitome of evil was commonplace in horror. Satan's presence is all over that house, from the sounds coming from both the basement and attic, to the feeling that someone is watching - it creates tense and suspenseful scenes. It sort of reminded me of ROSEMARY'S BABY in a way, and that's a good thing.
The direction by Ti West is very good for the most part. The look of the film isn't really a homage of older horror films [I kind of wish there was more grain or age to the film], but the way it's shot is definitely 70s and 80s. We get a lot of angled shots and slow moving shots that reflect the time. I do think that West's direction was too simple at times, which kind of hurt that scene where Samantha just wanders around. That scene needed more visual style to keep the viewer interested and it almost drew me out. But besides that, the pacing is well-handled and the shock moments work. The best scene was definitely the jolt scene 37 minutes into the film that truly caught me by surprise by how abrupt it was. I just felt it was written and directed well. Plus, I loved the old school opening credits and end credits. It was a very nice touch.
The acting is excellent. Joselin Donahue carries the film extremely well. She's pretty much the only actor for half of the film and she has no trouble advancing the story and building the tension. She also has a quiet charisma about her, showing nice vulnerability and inner strength that every final girl should have. Plus she looked like she was from the 70s and 80s, which completed the character. Just a really great job by this newcomer. Tom Noonan [who was the original Tooth Fairy in MANHUNTER] gives a gentle, creepy performance as Mr. Ulman. His height is intimidating and his voice is quiet - his nice guy act makes him easy to distrust. Mary Woronov, as Mrs. Ulman, is quite the opposite. She's hardly in the film, but her forceful nature and bluntness makes her very memorable. And Greta Gerwig as Samantha's best friend, Megan, is probably the best actor in the film. She would be portrayed as the stereotypical bitch in most horror films, but her actions and diction make her likeable and easy to relate to. I wish she was in the film more, but she makes her presence known whenever she's on screen.
And for you gorehounds out there, you're in luck. We get a head shot to pieces, stabbings, blood drinking, sliced throats, and other stuff. Plus you get an 80s soundtrack, including Greg Kihn Band's "The Break-Up Song" and The Fixx's "One Thing Leads To Another". Can't complain.
THINGS I'VE LEARNED WHILE KNOWING RIGHT AWAY THAT THE PENTAGRAM ON THE BASEMENT FLOOR ISN'T A GOOD THING
- Dee Wallace let Samantha rent out an apartment with only the first month's down payment. Seeing that the woman dealt with werewolves, rabid dogs, and even a reinvented killer with sister issues, this decision may be a BAD idea!
- Samantha's dorm room had a sock on the doorknob. Either her roommate had a missing sock returned, or she's busy getting banged by a Red Hot Chili Pepper. Either way, I could care less.
- Mr. Ulman said he hadn't much time to spare due to the eclipse. Either there's gonna be a BLOODY BIRTHDAY due to three evil kids, or I'm gonna have to suffer watching sparkling vampires and werewolves. I'm not sure which one is scarier...
- Don't tell anyone that you're not the babysitter. The response will blow your mind. Literally.
- Samantha put toilet paper on the toilet seat. I'm guessing it's to keep germs off of her ass. Or most likely, she doesn't want to look stupid on The Soup when she's shown in a clip for I Didn't Know I Was Pregnant.
- Samantha found clumps of hair in the bathtub. Well this was the early 1980s. A Brazilian Wax was more of a chore back then than it is now.
- Samantha was tired up over a pentagram by Satan worshippers. At least when the villains say that the Devil made them do it, it won't be a total lie!
THE FINAL HOWL
THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL was a pleasant surprise. While it's slow and takes a while for things to actually happen, it's a solid horror flick that old school fans will enjoy. And if you modern horror fans are looking for something with a bit of substance, you'll probably enjoy this film also. I'm an old school soldier and I dig this old school homage to horror films of the past. It appears that things can still go bump in the night, and that makes this Wolf smile.
3.5 Howls Outta 4