Instead of another homage (like Cabin Fever) or glossy remake (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), he [Ti West] has come up with a period pastiche that mimics the low-res vibe and look of early-1980s horror, along with the same bad hair and clothes. And he’s done so with more shiver than splat (Manohla Dargis, New York Times review).
There are times all too often these days, sadly, when I wonder which movie I'm watching; whether it's the one those other critics have seen or a cinema-changeling version of the movie swapped in just to bedevil me. After reading the New York Times' Manohla Dargis's review for The House of the Devil, I can only assume it was the cinema-changeling movie I watched and not the more entertaining, more sinister, and scarier movie she saw. In fact, it was her review blurb on the DVD cover that egged me on to buy it: I admit I fell for that one. I try not to be so gullible, but it does get harder and harder. She said it was "a horror movie with real shivers." I wish I had watched the movie she saw. I didn't shiver a bit. And adding insult to injury, USA Today's "unbearably suspenseful" blurb helped cinch the deal for me, although I would say it's more bearably unsuspensful.
Boy, have I learned my lesson about hypeful blurbs on DVD covers. In this case I would have preferred an energetic homage or glossy slick remake.
To be fair to Dargis, her review is thoughtfully written and argued, and she does point out her disappointment with the ending. After so much "sweet time" director Ti West takes to set up his Rosemary's Baby-lite, the climax flickers instead of bursts. West's attention to 1980s horror movie elements is virtuosic; but I wanted more attention paid—beyond recreating a decade's movie style—to the story itself; that would have been more rewarding for all my anticipation leading up to those flickers.
I will say Tom Noonan as Mr. Ulman is marvelously creepy. He can act creepy by just staring at you, but he does more than that here. (I dream of seeing Noonan play the Tall Man's brother in a Phantasm movie.) Even the dark old house is creepy, and Ulman's wife (Mary Woronov) is creepy. She's the kind of woman you recoil from when she touches you. I'll also bow to Jocelin Donahue's Samantha, who uncannily channel's that effervescent 1980s unsuspecting victim charm in her looks and acting. When she dances around the old dark house, to the tune of the Fixx's One Thing Leads to Another, I felt the urge to dance with her.
But all these impeccable acting and creepiness things do not lead to another frightening excursion into Satanic mischief. West's exacting attention to recreating an earlier decade's shadows, textures, and pacing renders a faithful replication with its truthful-camera technique, but at the expense of its malevolent events, which are few and far between, and its overall suspense, which is lessened by familiarity. Frankly, many movies from the 1980s—not just the horror ones—are tedious to watch now. Times change. As a project to capture the look and feel of another decade, Ti West has succeeded admirably; as a horror movie, The House of the Devil fails to elicit scares or tension because he has succeeded admirably at recapturing that look and feel without playing with our expectations.
Samantha, a college student, is moving into a new apartment and badly needs money. Dee Wallace has a brief cameo as the landlady. Worrying about how she will pay the rent, Samantha notices a flyer seeking babysitter help, next to the campus pay phone (Wow, remember pay phones? I mean the ones that hung on the wall?) She leaves a message, waits for the return call while listening to her portable cassette player (Ditto wow on cassette recorders. How many of you mixed your own?), and waits some more. I had forgotten how big those portable cassette players were back then.
She finally reaches Mr. Ulman, whose voice is also very creepy. She agrees to babysit and convinces her friend to drive her to the old and secluded house, past the cemetery. When they arrive, Mr. Ulman greets them with enough weirdness to make Samantha uncertain about staying. Money eventually persuades her, so her friend leaves, and much of the movie is spent watching Samantha grow uneasy about the situation, the empty house with photographs showing a different family in them, and the locked doors hiding dark secrets. A lunar eclipse and a skulking, sinister "handyman" (AJ Bowen) help make us uneasy, too.
This being a re-enactment of a 1980s horror movie about devil-worshiping fiends, Samantha does what you normally expect a ripening female victim to do: she pokes all around, upstairs and downstairs, orders pizza, and tunes to a horror movie on the television; gets bored, dances all around again, upstairs and downstairs, with her headphones and portable cassette player, and eventually eats the pizza, which tastes funny.
I will admit I was horrified when she held the pizza box the way she did, but that was the only tense moment for me. Defying the gravity effects on cheese and tomato sauce like that is really asking for it.
Revelations of the person she's babysitting, of the Ulmans' evil goal, and the significance of a lunar eclipse provide the climax that flickers instead of bursts.
Ti West also wrote and directed The Roost (also aided by a very creepy Tom Noonan playing a very creepy horror host). You may find that movie more rewarding.
I won't argue he's not good at what he does: he certainly shows skill for his craft here; but it's more an exercise in getting the period feel right than making a horror movie to scare, and that's what disappoints me.
Posted by: jmcozzoli | March 02, 2010 at 09:00 PM
I've enjoyed every Ti West flick up to this one. It is his first major
misstep, and for exactly the reasons you and Arbogast have so insightfully underscored: He got so obsessed with recreating the right Coke cups in the pizzaria that he forgot to make a good movie. West has always borrowed effective elements from horror and other film traditions, bit this is the first time the borrowing was the point of the film. And the flick suffers for it.
Posted by: CRwM | March 02, 2010 at 07:50 PM
I enjoyed this film immensely. Shivers? no, not really, but I appreciated the snail's pace, the attention to detail, the shocking (are you not the babysitter?) scene,and the performances. When the ending finally rolled around, I bought it. It just seemed to be the kind of cheesy denouement one might have found in a film from this era. I guess I watched one to many ABC movie of the week "horror" films when I was a kid! ;)
Posted by: Pax Romano | March 02, 2010 at 05:48 PM
I totally loved this film, but I knew as I was reviewing it that it would divide fans. It's all about atmosphere, so if it doesn't hypnotize you a little, there's just not that much left. I don't hold anything against anyone who doesn't dig this film, but I'm sure glad it worked for me.
Posted by: EmilyI | March 02, 2010 at 05:23 PM