Year: 2009 (UK release date 2010)
Director: Ti West
Screenplay: Ti West
Starring: Jocelin Donahue, Tom Doolan, Mary Woronov
Plot synopsis is here
A modern horror, which takes its aesthetics from the films of the 70's and 80's; to try and recreate that same retro feeling of days gone by. In hearing a description like that, one may think that House of the Devil dwells from the stable of a certain Eli Roth. It doesn't. Although from a certain stand point, Ti West's piece of retro chic terror could be bundled in with the Hostels and Cabin Fever's of this world*. However with it's slow burn execution and satanic moral panic theme West has created a different beast. A clear homage to older horror but not with pastiche or irony. It will not be for everyone, particularly those who like their horror films to play out thick and fast. But those who have patience may find this to be a very rewarding genre flick.
At this moment, Mainstream America appears to be very preoccupied with remaking everything it can. Updating the "classics" with horror beats that lean more towards the modern generation. This way of thinking has altered the landscape of horror slightly, taking the likes of Dawn of the dead and changing it from an socially satirical horror film, to more of an action thriller. West's film is a regression, a modern horror filmmaker making a very deliberate 80's horror, in every sense of the word from the film stock (16mm) to the techniques themselves; which include zooms, extreme close ups and electro synth scoring among other things. This threw me off as a viewer and helped with West's build up of the films tension and story. I truly feel that if this approach was put in place in remakes such as Last house on the Left or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre I would have enjoyed them more.
It's the lack of slickness that made house of the devil so effective for me. A shot will last a half a beat too long, camera movements that lack their usual smoothness and music that doesn't just build up towards zinger moments (jump scares) but builds dread when there's no need. This is film making that harks back to the days of The Exorcist and Rosemary's Baby, in which even the movie's "nothing" moments don't feel right. For me, West's film kept that feeling of unease though out the film, using technique to generate atmosphere and install dread as opposed to excessive gore effects or cheap jumps.
West's film also features a neatly crafted, screenplay with a descriptively simple narrative naturalistic dialogue for it's protagonists and more than a hint of the sinister when it comes to it's villains. Working together with the atmosphere of the piece, the script not only introduces and builds a character that I can cared about and makes it hard not to feel for her as the rabbit hole gets deeper. The film really benefits in spending time with her
However it's the solid performance placed by Jocelin Donahue as Sam that completes the package for me. Channeling Mia Farrow and Jamie Lee Curtis, Donahue gives a likable performance, that reminded me of horror films with lead characters who are vulnerable, not just virgins. The film also features sinister performances from Tom Doolan and Mary Woronov. Displays, which unsettle, not with grand, OTT gestures but subtle glances and inflections on their lines.
Nowadays we expect "more" (in terms of actual action) to happen in our horror movies and for me this was a refreshing change. It has a feel that reminds me of some of my favorites of the genre with an climax which while feels a tad short, revels in it's satanic what-the-fuckery. There's a sense of dread throughout this film that we don't get in that many horror films these days but I wish a few more had. The house of the devil will have a hard time effecting the Saw generation but should hopefully find itself a nice little cult audience that will enjoy it's deliberate approach.
*Ironically Ti West directed the straight to video sequel to Cabin Fever. He's disowned it.