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The House of the Devil (2009)

July 12, 2011

8/10 Helter Skelters

Babysitting for Satan worshipers. Never a good call.

The House of the Devil is about a college girl who puts a down payment on her very first apartment and, since all college kids are poor as hell, has to come up with some way to get enough dough to meet the rent each month. After searching high and low, she responds to a last-minute want ad for a babysitter gig out in the middle of nowhere that coincidentally is looking to pay her quite handsomely to simply make sure that an old lady stays in her room for the night. So she shows up to the house, decides to overlook everything about the creepy establishment, the creepy employer, and the rare lunar eclipse going down that all point towards “GET THE EFF OUT,” and ultimately finds herself fighting for her life and giving zero shits about being $400 richer.

I wish I watched horror movies more often, but the sad truth of the matter is that there just aren’t a whole lot of horror movies out there that I actually want to see, aren’t cash cow sequels, or just carbon copies of everything we’ve already seen before and done better. So when folks started suggesting this movie to me, I was pretty skeptical about the hype considering that the whole haunted house thing is a dead horse that’s been beaten into a glue-like consistency. But I nevertheless forged ahead, bumped this sucker to the top of my Instant Queue and trusted that my dearest of friends, this awesome poster, and that kickass tagline wouldn’t steer me wrong.

So the best way to go about tackling this movie is to break it down from act to act since it morphs like gangbusters from one 30-minute stretch to the next and that’s mainly why it works and also what prevents it from greatness.

Appropriately starting in chronological order, the first act is all about setting the tone. If you’ve heard of the ’80s, if you know that it existed, then it won’t take much to realize that this is a total throwback to the glory days of horror when blisteringly horny and painfully stupid teens were just starting to get offed by Jason, Freddy, and all those goofy bastards who won’t stay dead and look like burn victims with facelifts. It’s the synthesizer-fueled soundtrack, it’s the leg warmers and skin-tight mom jeans, it’s the way every woman was apparently forced into a hair salon at gun point and given a perm, and it’s awesome. The downside is that it takes a while for stuff to actually start happening, but for a movie that’s all about the mood, it works.

And then there’s the second act which is why this movie fucking rocks. The funny thing is, it’s nothing more than this girl just walking around the damn house for half-an-hour as she bides her time by watching the news, dancing around with her cool new Walkman on, and checking out the digs from one room to the next. It might sound boring from the outset, but believe you me, I could hardly even breathe, I could barely even watch, and I don’t think I’ve ever squirmed my way deeper into the depths of my couch to just distance myself from the freakin’ TV. I mean, it’s called The House of the Devil, so you know some shit is up with this place before it even starts, and with that at the front of your mind the whole time, it’s all about waiting for that hammer to drop. And what makes it even better is that the girl is actually pretty smart and makes one logical decision after the next when she starts wising up to the fact that this job blows in ways she never could have imagined. Considering that this continues to be the Achilles’ heel of a disgusting amount of horror movies, writer/director Ti West earned himself a good ol’ pat on the back for giving his characters some brains for once.

And lastly is the third act where we realize front and center what the devil has to do with this house, because he totally has something to do with this house. Whereas the second act is all about the stuff you don’t see, the third act shows you everything and nose dives into satanic underworld that’s been pulling the strings behind closed doors. The bummer of the situation is that the second act is so outrageously good that it makes the third act seem weaker just because the unknown in so much scarier than anything you can show an audience, although that’s not to say that the third act sucks, it’s good in a different way that’s just a lot less subtle. There’s nothing all that surprising about the direction it goes in or how it’ll probably play out, but it’s just done right, and that’s a lot more than I can say for most horror movies.

The only other issue I can think of here is a gun that gets used at two critical moments in the movie and magically goes from being the handheld equivalent of a hydrogen bomb to your everyday, police-issue pea shooter. It’s not like it took away from the movie as a whole or anything, but it does directly play into how everything unfolds in the long run, and considering how crazy powerful it is the first time that trigger gets pulled, the impact it has on that second round might raise a couple eyebrows in retrospect.

But as far as the acting is concerned, the cast is pretty solid. Jocelin Donahue is good as our girl Samantha, Greta Gerwig is good as her best friend, and Tom Noonan is freakin’ great and perfectly sketchy as Samantha’s employer for the evening. Yeah, no real complaints on the acting front, but the real star of the show here is Ti West and how he somehow manages to make a haunted house feel new again by taking it back a few decades.

Anyway, if The House of the Devil had kept up the insano tension it absolutely nailed in the second act and had opted to reveal less than it did, it would have been an easy 9. Then again, this was something else. So simple and so unreal how effective it manages to be by getting rid of cheap scares and constantly cranking up the suspense by embracing the silence. Seriously, this may be the best horror movie I’ve seen since The Orphanage and makes me wonder what the hell West is doing directing Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever instead of breathing new life into some big name horror franchises that could desperately use it. And if you’ve seen The Orphanage and soiled yourself double-time like I did, you know I ain’t kiddin’.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. July 12, 2011 6:12 am

    i liked this one too, especially greta gerwig. though, she was unfortunately involved in what had to be the most shocking scene in the movie. 😦

    • July 12, 2011 8:32 am

      Haha. Yeah, that was awfully surprising, huh? Talk about firepower.

  2. mcarteratthemovies permalink
    July 13, 2011 10:18 am

    I saw on Facebook that you had reviewed this, and I was almost afraid to read the review … much as I love this movie, so many other bloggers seem to hate it because of the slow pacing, the lack of violence/gore, etc. But that’s exactly why I love this as a horror movie: It’s all about the suspense. It’s almost Hitchcockian in that way.

    • July 13, 2011 10:22 am

      Glad you dug it! Was expecting more of a response from the masses since it kicks so much ass, but yeah, that’s exactly why it worked. That whole second act was AWESOME.

  3. July 13, 2011 12:45 pm

    A lot of mixed reviews from my fellow horror bloggers on this one. It does lacks the theatrics and gore of others but that being said not every horror film needs these elements to work. I really liked the films simplicity and its constant hint of malice that lies just underneath ready to sneak up any minute. Also the central character is cute as a button and so likeable that despite her questionable decision to take the job I empathized with her. And her friend is just plain fun! Loved the retro vibe too and the great 80’s inspired poster campaign!

  4. July 14, 2011 2:08 pm

    Man, talk about a slooooooooow burn. I dug the movie’s retro vibe, but it just took too long to get anywhere. I was disappointed with the ending, too, because as you said “the unknown is so much scarier.” I liked it better when I didn’t know what was going on in the house.

    • July 15, 2011 12:14 pm

      Yeah, the tension really drops fast once she ends up in the basement and that first act is a tad on the slow side, but idk man, that second act went a long way for me. Awesome vibe.

  5. July 18, 2011 10:05 pm

    Ya this film was just beyond ridiculous for me … and it took it self seriously … which was just another problem.

    Oh, sadly, I laughed far more here – than most intended *comedies*

    Glad you enjoyed the film, though.

    • July 21, 2011 1:50 pm

      Haha. Well, can’t win ’em all, but like you said, I did enjoy it and that’s what matters.

  6. July 20, 2011 10:27 am

    Smooth write up Adien. Yeah I heard people talk this up quite a bit and after seeing it totally agreed that this was a smart love letter and a stellar film to boot. Set to slow boil and wait for fireworks right?:P

    True the final act is a let down in comparison to the second but it is wild, out of control and balls out nuts which makes the ending that much more effective…even if it is sort of predictable.

    • July 21, 2011 1:53 pm

      Haha. Well said, man. It really is all about that second act and that second act was fucking unreal. Wish more horror movies knew how to do suspense like that.

  7. Marcus permalink
    August 10, 2011 10:43 pm

    Great review, although I don’t agree with your take on this movie. I found the whole thing to be so completely boring that I was hoping in the end the satanists would just pay her the rest of the money and drive Samantha home. It only goes to show how lacking the horror genre is in the last few years that this movie received such high reviews. It is a step in the right direction. I can only hope filmmakers take the hint and get away from the even worse gore-fest “torture porn.”

    • August 14, 2011 7:26 pm

      Hahahaha. Thanks! Been a bit surprised by all the disappointed viewers out there, but I hear ya’, it takes a while and I can see how it might not deliver at all for some. But like you said, it is a huge step in the right direction in utilizing a simple horror formula that works without just jumping on the torture porn bagon with everyone else out there. So tired of that shit, maybe that’s why this struck a chord with me.


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