Mark Reviews Movies

THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL

3  Stars (out of 4)

Director: Ti West

Cast: Jocelin Donahue, Tom Noonan, Mary Woronov, Greta Gerwig, AJ Bowen, Dee Wallace

MPAA Rating: R (for some bloody violence)

Running Time: 1:35

Release Date: 10/30/09 (limited); 11/13/09 (wider)


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Review by Mark Dujsik

Who knew a horror film that boils down to a girl wandering through an empty house could be so effective? The House of the Devil is the cinematic equivalent of foreplay. It's all about building mood, teasing us, and, in between the lines, promising an eventual payoff.

The film is skillfully written, edited, and directed by Ti West, who, I learn, has made two feature films prior to this one, both unseen by me. That will have to change now.

West knows his stuff. His pacing is astonishing, especially considering how little happens in terms of story and how actively involving the film still remains. He has an adept way of developing character without making us fully conscious of it. He manages to elicit some spot-on genre performances and a pretty remarkable one from his lead actress, who seems to intrinsically know just the right way to play out material that eventually calls for her to experience the most traumatic moments of her character's life.

His stylistic muse is clearly the horror films of the 1970s and early '80s, from little things like the title with the copyright notice at the bottom and the period setting to the bigger ones like the film's 16 mm, grainy look and the constant hinting at something darker below the surface. It is all of these things, but it is, unlike so many that attempt a similar callback, without a shred of irony. There are no knowing winks, no tongues in cheek, and no nudging elbows.

The House of the Devil is all about the unspoken and unseen. Characters say what would be perfectly normal things, except they intone something sinister without really meaning to. Or maybe they do.

There are dark hallways and closed doors and windows looking out into the blackness of the night (The night of a total lunar eclipse, no less). What lies down, behind, and outside them is for our imagination, and West knows our imaginations are capable of much more frightening things than almost anyone can capture on film.

That's not to say there isn't a payoff to all of this, but that it's only elevated in terms of impact by how West builds up to it.

The plot boils down to a girl named Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) accepting a babysitting job for a couple (Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov) in a remote house. The details of how Samantha and we unravel that something is awry is best left for discovery and unnecessary to get across how the film functions.

West depends on the familiar and routine to establish Samantha. She's a college sophomore looking to rent her first apartment because her roommate leaves the dorm a mess, snores loudly while she's trying to sleep, and keeps her from even entering the room with a sock on the doorknob, the universal symbol for "stay out, I'm hooking up."

She drops off papers, eats pizza with her best friend Megan (Greta Gerwig), and wonders aloud how on Earth she's going to manage to come up with the money to pay her new landlady (a Dee Wallace cameo) the first month's rent.

We know she's a strong-willed young woman because, when the situation finally hits her, she goes to the community bathroom to cry, but not before turning on all the faucets so no one can hear her.

She's kind but not nave, which we know because when the husband begs her to take the job and offers triple what he first said he would pay, she asks for another hundred bucks.

We also know all of this because Donahue plays it so well. What makes her performance beyond the typical horror heroine is that she does right what so many actors cast as horror antagonists get wrong: Samantha doesn't know she's in a horror movie. When she arrives at the house, she's perfectly calm. When she's left alone and odd noises begin to sound from somewhere, she begins to become uneasy. It's not until all hell breaks loose that she really begins to freak out, and that gradual growth of fear is to what we connect.

Noonan and Woronov have little screentime, but they use it as much as they can, establishing that first sense of anxiety within the audience with as much clarity as they can muster while still trying to seem like an ordinary couple in dire need of a babysitter.

Samantha wanders the house, which seems like an untouched museum piece, and cinematographer Eliot Rockett provides some supremely ambient lighting and shadowing throughout. She explores room, tries to find a way to pass the time, and repeatedly calls Megan to make sure she's still coming back to pick her up, while the noises become more frequent and things start seeming amiss. Why are the furs upstairs? If the couples' son is grown, why is the room still painted like a young child still lives there? Why hasn't Megan returned home yet? We know the answer to that one, but I'll leave it at that.

In less capable hands, this would and has been boring, but West never misses a beat in simply and efficiently provoking us one step further just when we need it. It all builds to a blood-drenched nightmare of a finale.

For those looking for the next action-packed, bloodbath masquerading as a horror movie, this is not for you. For horror that plays with the mind and punches the right buttons at the right moments, The House of the Devil is a considerable accomplishment.

Copyright 2009 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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