Thursday, February 4, 2010

Cult Oddities: The House of the Devil (2009)


Advertising should always be this effective.


I'm not sure the last time I've loved an ad-campaign this much -- outside of anything presented to me by Jon Hamm, of course. Forget the trailer which spoils far too much of its minimalist, already inevitable story, the marketing team behind Ti West's The House of the Devil has given a wealth of other superb material to its target audience. Beautifully eerie artwork, public fliers for a faux babysitter gig, even a penultimate release on clamshell VHS -- to the swoon of aging horror fans everywhere. Vast viral marketing aimed directly at our niche nostalgia.

Now Available on Videocassette.


It's even more of a marvel then that the film largely lives up to it. It's clever, atmospheric, and true to its demonic roots. Steeped in the acid-washed, feathered age of 1983, The House of the Devil conjures something delightfully ominous, something as seemingly ancient as payphones and high-waisted jeans. Of that same era when babysitting was no longer the safe, easy way to make money, and public paranoia toward satanic cults was at its peak... apparently. The late 70's/early 80's were a time when communication was still sparse, apartments cost $300, and horror films knew how to jangle our nerves with slowly built character and suspense. Turns out those days are still here, or at least they can be stylishly recreated by director Ti West.

It's 1983. Rosemary's fork-tongued Baby is now a teenager. Haddonfield's own Laurie Strode wisely retired from babysitting. Jill Johnson now knows better than to answer When a Stranger Calls. Poor Samantha Hughes (Jocelin Donahue) still needs to pay her rent...


The basic setup is all you need. You know where this is headed with that ominous bit of advertising on the campus postings board -- "Baby$itter Needed" - next to fliers about a rare solar eclipse. The presence of Dee Wallace as Samantha's landlady doesn't bode well either, considering her history of fending off werewolves, rabid dogs and hill people.


The factoid about satanic cults that opened the movie was probably a hint as well. Then there's that title... But getting to the house and peeking into its many suspicious quarters, behind its rumbling pipes, getting to meet the man behind the Baby$itter ads and his quirky family (headed by a superb Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov) -- that's where the fun is. Fun being fear and dread, of course.

West is clearly a devout horror buff, but graciously one not invested in homage. His references come more in spirit than in winks. It aims to be an 80's horror film, without the modern reference points. Even when the film has Samantha catching a glimpse of Night of the Living Dead on TV, it's more about the mood of the moment (and the fact that it's a public domain title) than any sort of ode to Romero. But The House of the Devil similarly deserves to be stumbled upon on whilst bored, surfing channels and stuffing your face with bad pizza -- possibly even whilst babysitting what may or may not be an old woman, who may or may not be in the attic.


Better yet The House of the Devil should be discovered on a dusty VHS that no one's been kind enough to rewind, its cover worn and tattered from years of curious rentals. With that inimitable texture of VHS grain to make you cower closer to the screen in its most shadowy moments, only to be jolted back by the hissing screams on the soundtrack. West's film tempts you to turn on the hallway light, double-check the locks, and anticipate a phone call as if it's coming from inside the house -- which, come to think of it, seems itself almost a charming nostalgia.


Suspense remains because the evil at the center is always secondary to the dread surrounding it. Even when the film amps up to a big, bloody payoff, it's the build-up TO the horror that really pays off. Surely the stellar score by Jeff Grace deserves major credit for this as well. Outside of two or three well-timed shock moments (a cemetery surprise is killer), it's the type of horror film intent on getting under the skin rather than ripping it clean off.


Samantha's sympathetic, characteristically aware of any poor decisions, and smart enough to grab the gun when the devilish events transpire. She's also the type of girl that says, "Get a grip," to keep herself grounded. Though she's given some extra personality when dancing about the dank house 80's-montage style set to The Fixx's "One Thing Leads to Another." As one thing inevitably leads to something awful, The House of the Devil lets us know Samantha in all of her everyday boredom as the action builds around her. Jocelin Donahue finds the right desperation and disgust to ground even the film's touchy supernatural streak, with plenty of charm to boot. Satan would do well to have her in his life.


Megan, played by Greta Gerwig, is the goofy but lovable best friend who's wise when she needs to be, yet obnoxious enough to believably be an 80's-movie best friend. She backs her slim role with a great sense of humor. Not enough to seem too snappy or clever, just enough to believe she might be taking bong rips in the back of her Volvo.

"Check it. Volvo. Safest car on the road."


Great marketing. And a great movie. Sometimes they do go hand in hand.