‘The House of the Devil’ is the most 80’s film of 2009.

17 Mar

The House of the Devil posterHorror movies can (generally) be divided into two camps: those which horrify and those which terrify, to borrow 18th century Gothic novelist Ann Racliffe’s classic distinction.  The former are easily digestible; they shock and surprise you, they make you jump and the viewer could well have nightmares that night. But there is nothing lurking under the surface: what you see is what you get, and this very act of seeing the monster, serial killer, ghost etc. is crucial in the distinction. This umbrella term encapsulates everything from ‘found footage’ films (see Paranormal Activity and the like) as well as ‘torture porn’ series such as Saw and Hostel.

Terror, on the other hand, is a Hitchcockian brand of slow-burning, insidious and surreptitious scariness which builds up inside of you like an ever-expanding virus. Subtle nuances, which may not terrify on their own, collectively combine throughout the film to form a sense of dread. While one may not actually see anything frightening, one feels a certain uncomfortable omniscience. You just know something is there, and it’s coming to get you. This sort of ‘horror movie’ is much more scarring, as the viewer could have trouble sleeping for days afterwards, yet may not scream once in the theatre.

The House of the Devil fits neatly into the latter category; a drawn-out, mostly quite harmless storyline in which a university student is called for a babysitting job. However, three things are noteworthy: the old couple who requested her service are mysteriously spooky, there is a rare lunar eclipse taking place that evening… And a cautionary note in the opening frames of the film warn us of the popularity of Satanic cults at the time. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out where the film is going: while a chimp could probably foretell the events which unfold, what should theoretically be undermined remains resolute: the tension.

Hello? Is it me you're looking for?

Hello? Is it me you’re looking for?

This movie is tense as all hell. Small details, which take the form of seemingly irrelevant set pieces or throwaway lines, which initially appear meaningless, all prove crucial in some form or another later on. This is an expertly crafted movie in that it is gradually added on to as the film goes along, much to the viewer’s ignorance, so that the final payoff is even more worthwhile, as the audience remembers these little nuances. However, the time spent leading up to the grand finale is immensely entertaining; that exasperated sense of a knowing danger, a potential doom for our femme fatale is teeth-grinding in its effectiveness.

Speaking of which, the acting is great all round.  While so many modern horror films tend to render the protagonists as little more than targets at which the murderer, zombies or aliens aim, here they are actually developed quite a long way. Jocelin Donahue is the good-intentioned and rather quite innocent teenager who doesn’t quite realise what she’s getting herself into. Greta Gerwig is her hip girlfriend who provides her lift to the creepy mansion, and Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov shine as the wonderfully creepy elderly couple with the ulterior motive.

In addition to working perfectly as a terrifying horror film, The House of the Devil also succeeds in the aesthetic department: it is the most deliciously eighties-flavoured film ever crafted outside of that bygone decade. High-waisted jeans, portable cassette players, old-school diners and gloriously awful pop music are as integral to this film’s brilliance as the violence and the Satanism; it’s like a bizarre hybrid of the original Halloween and Back to the Future (aka The Most Eighties Film Of All Time). Everything from the décor to the music to the overall feel of the film is commendably retro.

I was very impressed with this movie and also, by extension, director Ti West. He continued this tradition with 2011’s The Innkeepers, though perhaps faltered slightly with last year’s wobbly V/H/S.  A resounding success for ‘terror’ cinema!

Simon says: probably the best horror film of 2009. It’s amazing.


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