Thursday, December 17, 2009

The House Of The Devil

I don’t know about you, but I would never set foot into a house occupied by creepy cult actors Tom Noonan (MANHUNTER) and Mary Woronov (HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD), but I suppose college student Samantha (Jocelin Donahue), the charming protagonist of THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, hasn’t seen as many horror movies as I have. And she certainly needs a few extra bucks more than I do, as she’s just rented a house from a friendly landlady (the calming Dee Wallace) and needs money for the first month’s rent.

Writer/director/editor Ti West (TRIGGER MAN) set his film in the early 1980s, partly for narrative reasons, I suspect (I can’t imagine a 21st century teen agreeing to go alone to a stranger’s house in the middle of the night), but also for mood, as West successfully apes the look and feel of scary movies from that era. The girls’ feathered hair and Samantha’s gigantic Walkman draw giggles, but West isn’t asking us to mock the Al Franken Decade. Rather, he wants us to get into the spirit of a movie that relies on old-fashioned suspense to chill its audience, not monsters or special effects.

So, Samantha, needing the money, agrees to an all-night babysitting gig at the large home of Mr. (Noonan) and Mrs. (Woronov) Ulman, which is located out in the boonies near a graveyard. Even though Ulman has lured her there under false pretenses—he says he wants Samantha to watch his unseen elderly mother, not a child--$400 for four hours work is too much to pass up.

Buildup is slow. West is content to let the audience stew for over an hour, watching Samantha explore the Ulmans’ big scary house, listening to bumps in the night and growing curious about what lies behind the locked door upstairs. The film’s transition from slow-building suspense to flat-out terror is a masterwork of editing, music (by Jeff Grace), production design, and some damn fine acting. The following fifteen minutes, it’s true, disappoint just a little bit, but it would be hard for any filmmaker to create a payoff equal to West’s windup.

West’s love for grindhouse cinema is obvious—in his remarkably faithful opening and closing titles, if nothing else—but THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL isn’t a Tarantino-y slobberfest where you spend as much time pointing out references as you do following the plot. As a re-creation of 1982 drive-in flicks, the film is successful. But as straight terror designed to keep you up tonight listening for noises in the attic, well, those bumps in the night you hear may just be your heart thumping.

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