Dir. Ti West
Written by Ti West
Starring Jocelin Donahue, Tom Noonan, Mary Woronov, Dee Wallace
Wow, so here it is. I’d been waiting to watch this movie for 3 long years -- waiting for the right moment. When you watch as many horror movies as I do, the number of truly great ones that you haven’t seen dwindles down and down, until finally there are just a few left. Sure, sometimes you get surprised and blown away like I did this year with ABSENTIA and RED LIGHTS and to some extent TALL MAN. But you can’t count on that. Mostly you’re gonna get a few things which mildly impress you, a few things which mildly disappoint you, and mostly things that are exactly as middling as you’re afraid they’re gonna be. I hope it’s obvious from my output up til now that I am both willing and able to find plenty of things to love about almost any middling genre junk, but sometimes you just want something great. So HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, which everyone with any sense has been raving about since the day it opened, was my ace in the hole this year, the thing I knew I could count on to blow my mind just when I was getting to the summit of my Chainsawnukah 2012 adventure and I needed a surefire win to take me over that final peak.
That’s a lot of pressure to put on a micro-budget love letter to cheapie 80’s Satanic Panic era horror films, but after seeing THE INNKEEPERS (and his segment of this year’s V/H/S) I was convinced that Ti West was up to the task. Guess what. He was, and then some. Turns out everyone was right, this movie is fucking awesome, a perfect mix of clever black humor, meticulous production detail, slow build, and genuine horror. It tells a simple tale: A feather-haired collegiate babysitter agrees, against her better judgement, to hang around an isolate house all night while Tom Noonan and and Mary Woronov (who are suspiciously enthusiastic about astronomy) go watch a rare and almost certainly evil eclipse. Nothing much happens at first, but you know this isn’t gonna end well. Gradually, the hints that something sinister is going on start to pile up, and the tension mounts to a great climax.
Some people, I suppose, find the long buildup too slow, but of course they’re wrong, it goes at exactly the pace it needs to to gradually build our anxiety. And just like THE INNKEEPERS, it’s not like it’s boring or purposefully trying to test our patience. This isn’t THE BROWN BUNNY or something, it’s just a horror film which is secure enough that it doesn’t have to throw in phony jump scares every five minutes. Star Jocelin Donahue (She’s the female lead in THE BURROWERS, but “best known for her work in Zune and Levi’s commercials”) is immediately likeable and gives a funny, ingratiating performance so she’s entertaining even when she’s just ordering a pizza or dancing around to The Fixx’s “One Thing Leads to Another.” And the fact that we know this is all building someplace bad adds an additional layer of dread to keep you interested. If you’re impatient to figure out what the hell’s going on, it’s because West wants you to be, you jerk. It’s called suspense. Here’s a link to the definition, since if you got annoyed with this movie for taking too long I can be pretty certain you’re not the kind to look it up for yourself.
I was a little more worried about the 80’s trappings here, but as usual West was right on the money about that, too. As you know from my review of HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN, I’m not necessarily the biggest fan of the GRINDHOUSE-inspired subgenre of jokey b-movie parodies like PLANET TERROR, DEATH PROOF, and MACHETE. All those films have their merits, but they mostly come from their actual content, and are in my estimation actually held back by their overly cute conceit of mimicking the technical follies of cheapie films from another era. PLANET TERROR, for instance, has some inspired gore and wacky gimmicks in it, and as far as I’m concerned it’s a shame that it openly admits that it’s not actually a real film, but a goofy parody of a low-budget zombie b-movie. Given that, I didn’t know what to make of the opening credits to HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, with their solid yellow titles over zoomed-in freeze-frames. Seemed a little on-the-nose to me. But it quickly became clear that, thank god, this is not a parody of slow-burn 80s Satanism movies, it just is one. Setting this in modern days would just not have worked, you would never buy the main character’s adorable naivete, nor the movie’s genuinely earnest concern about the dangers of Satanism lurking beneath a facade of normality. You’d have to make it hip and self-aware, the character would have to comment that this is just like those old movies, and so on. Which would totally kill the vibe that the movie needs to get you to take it seriously. That, and no one lives in those spooky old Victorian houses anymore. Like HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN, setting it in the 80s is not a gimmick, it’s just the only way to tell this particular story. And having done that, it actually seems less obtrusive to simply include all the trappings of that era so the whole experience seems complete.
This is the point in my positive reviews where I usually say something like, “that having been said, the film isn’t perfect.” But actually, this one is kind of perfect. There’s not a false note in the whole thing, it’s just a elegantly simple slow march to a final hysterical finale. It’s assured, effortlessly entertaining, occasionally shocking, and they even got Tom Noonan in there in maybe his best villainous role since ROBOCOP 2*. There’s plenty about it that could be analyzed, plenty of parts that could be broken down to see why they work so well. But honestly, it’s a film which I suspect is best left as an experience, something to simply sit back with some red wine and let yourself get immersed in. And an excellent reminder that it’s possible to craft something riveting and scary from nothing more than a lone, likeable character in a big, empty house. Ti West you handsome devil, you’ve done it again.
*Which I sincerely hope reads as the complement I mean it as. Someone, I think maybe Mr. Majestyk, once told me he briefly ran into Tom Noonan somewhere and all he could think to say was “Good job in ROBOCOP 2!” which he thought Noonan read as sarcasm, even though it was intended as genuine. Which I think we can all agree is a pretty heartbreaking tale. So Tom Noonan, if you’re reading this, you were awesome in ROBOCOP 2 and also this one. I’m glad we had the chance to put this matter to rest.