After yesterday's tragic mishap regarding what I thought would be this week's Midnight Movie of the Week, and with the pressure of a busy weekend staring me in the face, I've scrambled to come up with a movie that I can review off the top of my head, and settled on last year's indie horror, The House of the Devil. It's a movie I've mentioned repeatedly on this site, particularly when looking back at recent midnight movies and when giving director Ti West's previous film The Roost a Midnight Movie of the Week spot a while back. I've given West a lot of credit as a daring, yet subtle filmmaker who has risen quickly in the ranks of horror cinema...and yet still haven't fully discussed the movie that got me to fall in love with the cut of his jib.
The House of the Devil is undoubtedly a film made by someone who watched a ton of horrors from the '70s and '80s on VHS growing up. Filmed to be intentionally grainy, West sets his horror tale deep in the 1980s, complete with a Walkman and a couple of totally rad tunes; while maintaining the feeling of the previous decades horror films and their focus on the presence of evil forces in our world.
Jocelin Donahue, a scrawny newcomer with a smoky voice, stars as a college student desperate to make money to pay for her new apartment (leased to her by horror veteran Dee Wallace) who is the focal point of the film. A no-frills ad on a bulletin board leads her to a babysitting job in a dark old house for an older couple played by the great Tom Noonan and the great Mary Woronov, who explain that the job isn't exactly babysitting. Despite the warnings of her best friend (played by Greta Gerwig, now of Greenberg), Donahue's Samantha takes on the job and the evening in the creaky and secluded house, and the suspense begins to boil.I mentioned that Donahue is the focal point of the film, and that's no exaggeration. Aside from a couple of location shots, she's on screen for almost the entire film. And when she's not, Gerwig's Megan probably is. The film makes a point to make us feel like these young women are trapped in the situation that is unfolding through a fine musical score and the dark and grainy imagery, but the girls never respond to the tension the viewer feels. This is not a self-aware horror like we've become used to in recent years, evidenced by some great scenes where the impending doom is broken by an impromptu dose of music that overtakes the characters' focus.
West and company do a fantastic job of building fear in the viewer while avoiding tipping a hand to the characters until their fate is set. This pacing becomes incredibly tense for those of us sitting at home, because we've seen those VHS horror movies too. We know inside that these girls are stuck in a situation that's going to terrify and change them, but the film maintains a focus on their upbeat nature until the moment is right for terror. It would be easy to say that The House of the Devil is pretty cliche, and even could be called a bit of a tease due to its pacing and willingness to drag on with little occurring to evoke extreme fear reactions. I think the characteristics that could bring those complaints are the same ones that make me want to place the film next to the likes of Rosemary's Baby as a perfect example of how to build suspense and make one feel for the characters at risk at the same time. Donahue, by acting naturally how we may expect a young woman in the situation to, doesn't have to stretch to give a great performance. The film works at its own pace around her, and the director's patience involves us in the character right up to the point when the big reveal finally happens. And when the film does hit its apex and reveals the details of what Samantha has fallen into, things move quickly to a satisfying conclusion.
The House of the Devil is a horror film that hit me deeply by simply setting a tone of unease and holding that tone until the last possible moment. In essence, the characters are standing in front of a firing squad for the entire film...and we're just waiting for the triggers to be pulled. Not enough horror movies are willing to keep such a simple view of fear these days, which makes The House of the Devil a breath of fresh air in the bombastic post-Saw horror scene. That's more than enough to make it one of my favorite horrors of recent memory, and a fine pinch-hitter to step in as Midnight Movie of the Week.
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