The House Of The Devil

Director    Ti West
Starring    Jocelin Donahue, Tom Noonan, Mary Woronov, Greta Gerwig, AJ Bowen, Dee Wallace
Release    30 OCT (US) 19 MAR (UK)
3 stars


24th March 2010

1983 is a strange year in which to set your retro love-letter to horror. Gore nostalgia fans will note that the slasher hey-day was a few years previous. 1983 saw a slew of misfiring sequels to previously popular franchises; Halloween III, Jaws 3D, Psycho II and some tacky Stephen King adaptations.

Horror was becoming brasher and more garish; the following year would see the release of A Nightmare On Elm Street. The House Of The Devil is a purposeful step backwards. Like a lost Dario Argento film, although somewhat watered down for an American audience, it aims to claw back the genre from the day-glo razor-fingers of snark and irony.

The film sets out its intent right from the start. As germophobic college student Samantha takes a job as a babysitter for an ageing couple in a remote mansion, we are treated to some of our favourite eighties filmic devices - slow zooms (eschewing the more familiar push-in camera techniques), groovy seventies title fonts, a Goblin-esque score, freeze-frames, big hair and large, clunky technology.

For all intents and purposes, this film WAS made in 1983, in the same way that The Blair Witch Project IS a genuine student film gone wrong. Throw in some leg warmers and roller boots and I'd be lost in my own private fantasia for quite some time. (Someone once recommended a film called Xanadu to me, but I daren't believe such a mythical wonder could really exist.)

[gallery]Back in those days you could spend five minutes watching a character walk from one place to another with little else happening. We just weren't in that much of a hurry in the early eighties. And that's the film's biggest strength: pace. For the most part, The House Of The Devil has a terrifically slow pace; it takes its sweet time getting anywhere, and that's how you build dread. That's how you instil fear. Let your audience get fidgety and impatient. They know something horrible is eventually going to happen, so why satisfy them with the relief of it happening early? This is the slowcore lover's horror movie, and a lesson that should be learnt by every modern genre filmmaker.

Happily for its wonderful first hour, The House Of The Devil sticks to this formula rigidly. We're two-thirds of the way in, and all Samantha has achieved plot-wise is ordering a pizza, but the tension builds palpably in her seemingly innocuous actions. She wanders the corridors of the vast mansion, exploring each room like a naive child. The camera searches around her, leaving awkward spaces of ambiguousness in the frame, and the constant use of low angles draw your eyes into these dark recesses against their will.

In one excruciating scene, she dons her walkman headphones and embarks on a lengthy dance around the mansion to some loud and extraordinarily unfashionable music completely unaware that not only is this lethal behaviour in a horror movie but also entirely unacceptable in a real-life babysitting situation. It's her blasť manner in the face of unknown terror that causes our suspense and frustration.

A largely unknown cast work incredibly well with the material, delivering entirely natural and rather mundane dialogue in a befittingly stilted and awkward manner. The casting highlight is once again getting to see Tom Noonan play the creepy bastard he was always born to play. (Tom Noonan was The Tooth Fairy in Manhunter. Tom Noonan is brills.)

Unfortunately after an incredibly pleasing first couple of acts, at one point involving a scene with a brilliant double-bluff scare moment that turns into a highly unnerving adult shock, the film falls apart.

The House Of The Devil tries to exist in a world without irony, but for that to truly work it also needs an audience that lacks irony; one that hasn't been bludgeoned around the face with over two decades of post-modernism, cultural dissection and hundreds of moronic remakes. So when the pay-off comes, our desensitised selves can only be disappointed. Nothing is shocking about the finale, it's rather hackneyed and not particularly scary.

Also its biggest crime is that the end comes far too quickly. Key facts and plot revelations are thrown at you in a nonsensical manner, characters behave in the most unlikely way possible, and the villains are despatched in a swift and bizarrely easy way. It's like they're not even trying.

Further reflection reveals a plot that actually holds very little purchase in the real world, so ultimately you're left with nothing but a flawed experiment, particularly when you then realise that Rosemary's Baby already exists.

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