I'd been looking forward to watching "House of the Devil" ever since I caught the trailer for it online back in mid-October of 2009. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a massive disappointment. Writer/director/editor Ti West makes the case that Rob Zombie ("House of 1000 Corpses") and Eli Roth ("Cabin Fever") got it wrong: paying homage to 70's horror doesn't mean loading up your movie with creepy hillbilly characters, an abundance of grotesque violence, and a tongue-in-cheek sensibility. Instead it's about studying the shot composition of directors like John Carpenter and Stanley Kubrick, adding an appreciable level of grain so that the audience knows they are indeed watching film, and maintaining a deadly serious tone throughout. And on a technical level, "House of the Devil" is flawless.
Requesting an audience with his Satanic majesty
It's just that the script so completely lets the audience down. Except for one brief (albeit shocking) moment of violence, absolutely *nothing happens* for the first 70 minutes of this movie. Once you realize you've been in a state of slow-induced dread for most of the movie you grow resentful. It's like your cousin is telling you a spooky story at night and he keeps adding filler to pad things out: "And then the babysitter made popcorn...and then she heard a bump upstairs...and then the pizza guy showed up...and then the faucet started to leak..." Get to the horror already!
Silhouettes can only get you so far, horror directors, before the audience wants some bloodshed!
Despite the fact that this is 2009, the script also has the characters doing the same lame-brained things that kids in 80's horror movies did, inevitably getting them killed. At some point anyone rational person placed in this story would have asked themselves "Is $300 really worth losing my life over?" and gotten the hell out of dodge. Instead our plucky heroine goes dancing around a creepy house - with someone she doesn't want to wake upstairs - while listening to her walkman.
Of course, given the movie's slow pacing, this dance sequence ends up padding things out even further. The movie is constantly hammering into the audience's skull a subplot about a full lunar eclipse, to the point where you just want to yell "I get it! A Satanic plot is underfoot!" Then when the horror finally does ramp up, things turn into a forgettable bloodbath with images from a Cradle of Filth music video spliced in.
The House of the Devil
Cradle of Filth
Tom Noonan is a character actor I've been watching since I was a little kid, first as Frankenstein's monster in "The Monster Squad" and later as The Ripper in "Last Action Hero." As I got older I discovered his roles in Michael Mann's "Manhunter" and "Heat." The guy is immensely talented and here he delivers a nuanced, unsettling performance. He comes across less as a crazy horror baddie and more like someone suffering from crippling Asperger's syndrome, and he stutters as much as William H. Macy in "Fargo." For this movie it really, really works.
Unfortunately, he's only in "The House of the Devil" for about 10 minutes and you ultimately realize that the film is undeserving of his talent. Similarly, the quintessential 80's suburban mom, Dee Wallace (she was the mom in both "E.T." and one of my personal favorites "Cujo"), shows up in a cameo role. She has a small part but Noonan and her give by far the best performances of the movie.
Noonan gives it his all, no matter what movie he's in
I should note that the movie goes to great lengths to recreate the look and feel of the early 80's, from the clothes to the cars to the interior decorating, and includes The Fixx's "One Thing Leads to Another" in a pivotal scene. At first I was pretty damn impressed but another Netflix reviewer hilariously points out many people are going to be watching this flick on blu-ray and in 5.1 surround sound so the verisimilitude only goes so far. This is a movie that would be best watched on VHS on a 13" TV screen, and funnily enough Ti West sent VHS copies to various reviewers as promotional material.
Notice the era-appropriate hair
If this was Ti West's first film, I'd still mark him as a horror auteur to watch - but considering he's done a few other films, including a direct-to-video sequel to "Cabin Fever" that he's trying to get his name taken off of, I'm not holding out much hope for his future endeavors. "House of the Devil" itself ends on a cliche, predictable note, setting things up for a sequel that I hope we won't have to see.
Ti West - horror auteur or hipster douchebag?