House Of The Devil (2009) is a truly effectively creepy film that doesn’t purport to be creepy yet just is by virtue of using an almost unselfconscious lack of high art “high artiness”. By the time the House Of The Devil found its climax, I was certain that I would suffer a nightmarish revisitation of the images from this film. Seldom does a contemporary film manage to throw itself way back to the time during the late sixties, seventies and early 80’s when filmmakers on the fringe created subtle classic masterpieces with originality and a philosophical vision of what is truly horrible, disturbing, or frightening. Not just by the use of violence, although they knew how to impact the narrative with a powerful dose of that as well.
Shot on 16mm film which was very popular in the 80s it gives House Of The Devil its very retro stylistic look.
A style that uses understatement, and calculated pacing and is driven by human nature on a trajectory path toward the malevolent and stomach-turning possibilities that certain characters and events can conjure for you. Directors like Wes Craven and Toby Hooper knew how to utilize this. Or Curtis Harrington did this with several of his obscure art house /grade b movies like What’s the Matter With Helen, How Awful About Allen, and Games, which were more of what I call “The Horror of Personality” than supernatural film. Although, when someone’s mind is truly twisted in a dark way, it borders on the supernatural I think. And whether this small migratory group of people like a band of “yuppie gypsies” conjured a real demon (The Blue Demon)or not, is not relevant, what is, is that “they” believe it’s possible and so everything that happens is essentially just as horrific.
Above is filmmaker Curtis Harrington. And the always great Shelley Winters in What’s The Matter With Helen
My problem with many of the contemporary horror films is that they keep remaking films created as perfectly charming and yet deliciously spooky experiences, which now become a roller coaster ride, a clockwork orange, eyes taped wide open assault of body violation and severe and abject violence for the sake of causing as much psychic harm as possible while filling the theaters with gore going patrons. I have no problem with gore. One of my favorite films is Romero’s Dawn of The Dead. It’s a beautifully campy and compelling watch. I can’t however subject myself to half the films that have insignificant actors being violated horribly against no plot, no substantive concepts, and the only driving force is to see how many grotesquely brutal ways there are to hurt someone. If I wanted that, I would commission someone on Etsy to build me a time machine and step back to the Inquisition or The Middle Ages.
Now, House Of The Devil does something very very different, and yet scared me more than Saw, or The Grudge and Hostel put together. It lurked like a shadow outside your mind’s window. The pump was beautifully primed for that sense of dread but it wasn’t right there in your face, rather, it lurked. HouseOfTheDevil doesn’t depend merely on some artifices like tortured victims, mind-assaulting CGI’s, or violent death scenes perpetrated on beautiful youth. It just paced itself in a way that lured you into an expanding sense of something’s very wrong here, but there isn’t any blood yet and there aren’t any histrionic acting moments that irritate yet inform you of the plot’s motivation. There are no images flashing before your eyes like gruesome psychedelic visions of blurry distorted faces sliced in mock smiles from ear to ear, hacked like Conrad Veidt’s character Gwynplaine from the (1928) adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel The Man Who Laughed, which did it much more effectively than a literal onslaught like that of so many women who’s faces have been slashed that way in many of the genre films in recent years.
of Michael Mann’s superior Manhunter (Red Dragon) and veteran cult film actress Mary Woronov (Silent Night, Bloody Night) also one of my favorite obscure films of the early 70s create a sort of gothic “lack of affect”, that is chilling.
Jocelin Donahue is so believable as the girl in peril in this film, that it’s hard not to consider that we are actually watching a true story on hidden home video. Actually, it supposedly does take place in the 80s and is based on events that might have happened although there are no textual props to back up this claim. Probably generated by the urban legend of that era, I remember growing up on Long Island and hearing the urban myths about hidden Devil Cults and Satanism in Suburbia. They would hold sacrifices in abandoned Asylums, the woods on the North Shore, or someone’s palatial mansion on the Gold Coast of L.I. or the more seedy mysterious end of Long Island. Perhaps that’s an extra reason why the film felt so authentic to me. Ti West really caught the feeling and atmosphere of 1980’s Long Island, and I know, because I was there! There was an almost brilliantly conducted mathematical equation to the way West built the tension in this film.
From the start, you feel like you’re just watching a girl desperately trying to live her life, get out of a repulsive living situation with a filthy, slovenly sex addict for a roommate, and so she winds up making a decision to take a babysitting job on the night of a lunar eclipse because she needs the money for her new apartment Landlorded by Dee Wallace (The Howling ) of similar 80’s horror film jewels. The eye for detail in terms of the music, and the clothing are meticulously dead on for that 1980’s slasher-style film. It’s so accurate that you might almost believe it was shot back then and held for a 2009 release.
Samantha herself is portrayed as someone very tightly wound, and pretty much of an anal-retentive germaphobe. The character development in this film does more in one subtly expository yet passive scene, than all the dialogue spouted in Lake Mungo. While I watched frustratingly as Sam chooses to stay in a strange scenario for the sake of the money, I wasn’t angry at her. I did care what happened to her because she was so believable. I also liked her more cautious friend Megan played by Greta Gerwig, who was very likable and the voice of reason, the sort of ArchAngel Gabriel messenger of doom, heralding the warning to Samantha that something wasn’t quite right about the job.
After a stalled attempt at meeting her new employer, the red flags should have gone up right then, but the way this film builds its tension is so exquisite not exasperating like Lake Mungo. So, in order to set the tempo for the inevitable horrifying reveal, we must allow Samantha’s distraction and suspend our disbelief in order to get her to the house. And once again, we all might do things at one time or another, because we’re on a mission and ignore the signals that we’re heading down a dangerous path. It’s not inconceivable that back then, someone would take a weird job for the promise of much-needed cash. It wasn’t quite like now, the day of serial killers and thrill killers in every city and town. Depicted on television shows like CSI and Criminal Minds with nasty things being done to good people just going about their daily lives.
Now once, Samantha finally meets Admiral Akbar ( Tom Noonan ) who has hired her to babysit his elderly mother, you might scratch your head and ask, why would you take a job, all the way out of town, particularly when the first signs of odd behavior presents itself you’d get out of there right away. The odd man has been evasive and has already admitted one lie, but Samantha Hughes does what probably a lot of kids would do, and stick it out because you need the money, and hey, so what if the guy lied once, what could he be hiding he seems so harmless and mild-mannered. Tom Noonan is wonderfully creepy. He has a certain odd, but gentle quirkiness that comes across as haunting and edgy.
There is even a sense in which the film acts as a cautionary tale/metaphor which a lot of the films of the 80s manifested themselves from the drug and club culture and indulgences of the Seventies which became the onset of the preoccupation with health and the scare that was brought about by the AIDS epidemic.
Watching Samantha’s uncomfortability, her idiosyncratic neat freakery and her anxiousness unfold in this house, a house which is every bit a character in the film, causing a grotesque suburban bourgeois persona, creates the eerie pacing that slowly unravels into a grotesquely nightmarish conclusion. Perhaps it’s just a babysitter in distress movie to some, but there is so much more going on in this film because of its masterful storytelling by vintage veritae.
Not that I would ever compare the great Rosemary’s Baby, my all-time favorite film in general, but that sense of impending doom, and the disturbing reality that comes knocking in a very ordinary person’s life, is quite well done here too.
And I will not soon forget how my stomach churned at the climax, not because someone was graphically tortured on film in gory autopsy style for no reason other than to shock and disgust. This ending made me shiver because it felt so real and so abnormal in its ordinary horror. It’s simple storytelling like the real boogeyman or the devil and demons do exist. That Hansel and Gretel followed the breadcrumb trail and found a witch with a really hot oven. A true retro suburban fairy tale.