If you catch yourself watching the latest fright films and thinking: "Pfffft, this isn't half as scary as (insert name of classic horror movie here)" then, like me, you're probably getting pretty jaded. After sitting through yet another mediocre crap-fest you might even begin to think that it's not worth looking anymore.
But I'm here to tell you in no uncertain terms: keep trying. Eventually your persistence will pay off and you'll come across a film made by an intelligent director who actually understands the genre. Ti West is just such a specimen. Although his 2009 offering The House of the Devil isn't built on the the most original premise in cinema history, its brilliant execution had me positively giddy with excitement.
The House of the Devil tells the tale of Samantha Hughes (Jocelin Donahue), a cash-strapped college student who's dream apartment is currently out of financial reach. To remedy this, Sam answers a cryptic-looking want ad for a babysitter which she finds plastered all over campus. The oddly-measured male voice at the other end of the phone is both adamant and desperate but he's also willing to shell out some major bread in order to procure her services.
Tempted by what looks like easy money, Sam gets her spacey buddy Megan (Greta Gerwig) to drive her out to the Gothic, country manse of Mr. Ulman (Tom Noonan). Almost immediately, Ulman admits that he hasn't "been completely honest" about the nature of the job, so he quadruples her pay in order to compensate. "This one night changes everything for me!" Sam foreshadows to Megan at one point.
Freaked out by the creepy mise-en-scène, Megan follows through on her threat to bolt. After the Ulmans depart, Sam is left in the house alone with her unconventional ward. Between the script's patient build-up and Ti West's steady hand at the helm, the audience ends up being subjected to an unbearably unnerving experience. It's almost as if West took the pre-transformation tension from An American Werewolf in London and built an entire movie around it.
West kick-starts his film with an unsettling title card which maintains that "during the 80's 70% of American adults believed in the existence of abusive Satanic cults". Although this sounds a tad alarmist now, I can personally testify that the decade's all-purveying sense of Satanic Panic was actually quite palpable and wide-spread. Despite the early tell, this simple title card kept me completely glued to the screen as I waited for the cloven hoof to drop.
Since the murky look of the 70's and 80's is so closely associated with good horror movies, it makes perfect sense that West wanted his film set in the same era. Not only does the film feature impeccably convincing production design, it also gives West plenty of opportunity to use vintage camera techniques as well. Notwithstanding the retro freeze-frame opening credits, there are loads of locked-down shots, one-point perspectives, disjointed camera angles and extreme close-ups.
That's not to say that West fails to get creative with these hallowed traditions. One of my favorite shots has Sam emerging from a distant building and walking right into the extreme foreground. Just before Jocelin Donahue head-butts the camera, she takes a sharp left turn and a dolly shot tracks her profile in extreme close-up as she keeps walking. It's an extremely innovative shot that I really don't remember seeing anywhere else. How rare is that in this era of creative fatigue?
I also really like the cast. Recalling shades of Jessica Harper in Suspiria, Jocelin Donahue is both sweet and sympathetic as Samantha. Even after doing some pretty snoopy or chowder-headed things, Donahue's boundless charms ensure that we stick with her. It's just a pity that the script doesn't give her much of an arc, save that she loosens up little bit and eventually taps into a previously-unseen reservoir of fortitude.
Greta Gerwig is also memorable as Sam's spazzed-out, finger-licking (?) pal Megan. Despite her vapid qualities, Megan is written with plenty of street smarts. I love that she insists on going with her friend but threatens to bail if things don't "feel" right. By the time she drives out to the boonies, gets a load of the house and checks out the oddball owners, she has absolutely no qualms about rabbiting.
Speak of the devil, I almost jumped for joy when Ulman turned out to be none other then supremely talented character actor Tom Noonan. Noonan, who played Francis Dolarhyde in Manhunter, is perhaps the most criminally underutilized actor out there right now. His take on Ulman is nuanced, off-beat, seamless and naggingly creepy. Just as soon as you hear his voice, you feel as if there's something "off" with the guy, even if you can't quite put your finger on it.
Ti West proves to be a formidable triple threat, serving as writer, director and editor here. He gives us plenty of motivation to feel protective over Sam and creates an oppressive sensation of impending doom. By throwing a shockingly brutal and unexpected murder at us fairly early on, West ensures that the audience always knows more then his heroine does. We know that Sam's only lifeline has been completely severed and her evening is probably going to get a helluva lot worse before it gets better.
If The House of the Devil were a football game, it would earn a mound of flags for piling onto the viewer's frazzled wits. Even as Sam tries to domesticate her new environs by turning on every light in the house, West is there to counter with his dead-eyed camera work and Jeff Grace's spine-tingling soundtrack. By juxtaposing Samanatha's unfettered dancing to "One Thing Leads To Another" by The Fixx (which she plays on her Gideon Bible-sized walkman) with televised clips from Night of the Living Dead, West has a blast playing around with mood and atmosphere.
When the proverbial cat is let out of the bag, the film takes a slight dip, mainly because we've seen the trappings of this sort of threat many times before. I guess the first half of the film was so strong that my over-clocked imagination expected something equally original and a helluva lot nastier. But in keeping his finale small scale and somewhat vague, West manages to nuzzle The House of the Devil up alongside classics like Rosemary's Baby and The Omen.
I'm more then willing to dole out a good review if the film-makers are patient, intelligent and reasonably creative. The House of the Devil might not be quite as good as I think it is, but I really feel compelled to reward any film that manages to surprise me, especially at this advanced stage in my career as a horror-film fanatic.