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Sunday, April 11, 2010

The House of the Devil (2009)

In 2005, a then 24 year-old, Ti West released The Roost, a low-budget fright flick involving teenagers under attack from rabid bats who turn their victims into blood thirsty zombies. As fun as it was trashy, the film did well on the festival circuit but didn’t make much impact on the horror community generally. It's a stylish piece that employees 16mm filmstock and looks all the better for it! His break came when he was hired to direct the follow-up to Eli Roth's smash-hit gross-fest Cabin Fever in 2007.

Cabin Fever 2: Spring Break was a troubled production for the young director, producer interference resulted in West wanting his name removed from the finished film and having it replaced with the now legendary Alan Smithee. Due to him not being a guild member the request was denied and his name has remained as director of that film, while all of this was going on however, West had set in motion another movie, a throwback to the good ol' 80's entitled The House of the Devil.

The House of the Devil tells the story of Samantha Hughes, a college student who is in desperate need of escaping the confides of her student accommodation. She has found the perfect apartment, the landlady (a nice little cameo from Dee Wallace) is taken by her and offers her the apartment without requesting the $300 deposit she normally would. All Samantha has to do now is find the $300 for the first months rent. Spotting an advert for a babysitter she contacts the number on the advert and registers her interest, she's asked if she can meet the man who placed the add, they agree a time and place but he doesn't turn up.

Later that night she receives a desperate call from the man asking if she is still available, she accepts and heads out to his house in the sticks with her buddy, Megan. Once there they're met by the ageing Mr. Ulman, his desperation is evident and he confesses that he doesn't require a babysitter, but someone to take care of his mother. Hesitant at first, Samantha refuses, in desperation Mr. Ulman offers her $300, Samantha agrees to do it for $400 and he agrees, half up front and half once he returns. Megan leaves Samantha and agrees to pick her back up in 4 hours, but as Samantha is about to learn, a lot can change within 4 hours.

Once again, West opts to shoot his film on 16mm and the results are fantastic. The essence of early 80's cinema is evident from the first scene, by the time the title card hits the screen you know you're in confident hands. This is a director that truly admires the era he's homaging and his ability to recapture the aura of these films is apparently effortless for him, he knows every angel and every technique from 80's horror and throws them at the audience one after another. If you admire this era of filmmaking then you'll instantly fall in love with the movie.

If the opening statement of the film is to be believed, 70% of Americans by the 80's believed in Satanic Cults and the other 30% believed this was a government conspiracy. This helps explain the rash of the satanic themed movies that hit screens through the 70's and early 80's, we've come along way since then and the demand for Satanic based movies has dropped significantly; so it's to West's credit that he's set about re-discovering an under appreciated genre for cult enthusiasts to get their teeth into, he just may also have made Rosemary's Baby for a whole new generation to admire and discover.

The biggest problem I can see the film facing, when faced with mainstream audiences, is its slow burning approach; in these days of relentlessly paced action-horror movies will the average movie goer understand the nature of the films pace? I'm hoping it doesn't hinder the films mainstream acceptance and the slow approach really does have a heart-stopping climax. Jocelin Donahue performance is also career starting material, she carries the film from the first scene the last and she moulds Samantha into a warm and likeable character that you'll find yourself attached to within the first five minutes of the film. Once the peril and jeopardy mount you'll be praying for her to make it out safe...

Ton Noonan, now a full-fledged Ti West regular, gives a great supporting performance as the unsettling Mr. Ulman. He gives us a man that is as frightening as he is likeable, he gives a performance that is oddly sympathetic; there's a sadness to it that suggests a man conflicted with the events he's setting in motion. On one hand he knows it's wrong, yet on the other he has to make this happen – it's his destiny and purpose in life. Needless to say he's a great asset to the movie, just as he was in The Roost and credit to Ti West for continuing to hire such an underrated actor.

The House of the Devil
may not become the modern classic that many are suggesting it is, it's certainly going to put Ti West on Hollywood's talent map, the atmosphere is menacing and the performances are gripping, but the uneventful first hour may alienate the majority of viewers, especially those unfamiliar with the genre in which this film belongs. Those who appreciate the genre will no doubt lap this gem up, it's a modern Cult classic and is up there with Dead Girl as the best of modern American horror production. It's also Ti West's greatest achievement to date. Lets hope he has more such achievements to come in his career.

Purchase the DVD here or Blu-ray here.

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