Saturday, October 1, 2011

Overlooked Gems #8: The House of the Devil

Grade: 89 (A-)

Sometimes homages to old films end up outdoing their inspirations. George Lucas’s Star Wars effectively supplanted the Flash Gordon serials he loved as a kid as the go-to space opera action series. Ditto for Lucas and Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark. Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (another candidate for this feature) is better than the already terrific blaxploitation films that inspired it. Horror filmmaker Ti West is not a master on the level of Spielberg or Tarantino, but his 2009 80s horror schlock throwback The House of the Devil works on a similar level as Raiders or Jackie Brown: communicating love for the source but being infinitely more accomplished.

Beginning with a tongue-in-cheek “true story” title card with bogus statistics about Satanic Cults, retro-credits, 80s style score, feathered-haired characters, and gigantic Walkmen, the film immediately recalls 80s horror films without straining to establish the period the way J.J. Abrams’ otherwise strong Super 8 did. The House of the Devil  introduces Samantha (Jocelin Donahue), a college girl with a sloppy roommate who spends the day sleeping or having sex with her boyfriend. Samantha finds the perfect apartment with a sweet landlord (genre veteran Dee Wallace), but she can’t quite afford it. Samantha finds a flyer for a babysitting job (spelled “BABY $ITTER NEEDED”) and calls. The man she calls seems strange over the phone, but hey, a job is a job. Bad-girl best friend Megan (the always welcome Greta Gerwig) thinks it sounds like a bad idea, but agrees to drive Samantha. When they get there, things get stranger: the house is out of their way to get there, the house itself is huge and creepy looking, and Mr. and Mrs. Ullman (Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov) are strangely obsessed with tonight’s lunar eclipse. Oh yeah, and Mr. Ullman admits they don’t really have any children and that Samantha would really be watching the house and his wife’s as-yet unseen mother (“she keeps to herself”). Megan doesn’t like it, but after Samantha uses this as leverage for more money, she leaves her friend at the house.

And then…well, nothing. With one notable exception, the film turns to a slow burning thriller in which the protagonist spends a lonely night in a creepy house and not too much happens. A lesser filmmaker might be intimidated by a fairly uneventful second act and force some cheap “cat jumps out of the corner” shocks, but West smartly trusts the quiet menace of staying in an unfamiliar place. West’s use of tracking shots around corners and close-ups on inanimate objects to build atmosphere recalls master horror filmmakers like John Carpenter or Roman Polanski while his use of intimidating character actor/horror icon Tom Noonan works as a throwback to Michael Mann’s serial-killer procedural Manhunter. Noonan is, as always, very good in this film, his thin, weak voice contrasting his unnatural height, and his portrayal of a character that seems to barely comprehend how other humans act is simultaneously creepy and humorous.

Eventually the film has to go somewhere beyond the character in a creepy location, and the blood-soaked 20 minute finale ramps up the intensity before the film ends on another terrific, low-key note. The gearshift the film’s third act takes, while well-handled and effectively frightening, is perhaps the least interesting section of the film, if only because the film’s second act manages to buck modern horror conventions that dictate that a scare has to come every few minutes. The slow-building dread culminates in a terrific scene in which Samantha dances throughout the house while her walkman blasts The Fixx’s “One Thing Leads to Another” (talk about an 80s song). It’s a scene in which it seems something horrible could happen at any moment, and the fact that nothing has happened yet somehow manages to be all the more terrifying.

October Overlooked Gems Schedule:

October 7: Black Christmas
October 14: The Changeling
October 21: The Funhouse
October 28: Exorcist III: Legion

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