Just as some films are overhyped and invariably turn into steaming piles of regret (Transformers, I am looking at you and your progeny), others are deemed worthy of categorical honors that sometimes turn out to be so much hot air. Ti West’s genre darling The House of the Devil is one such film. Taking on the look and feel of an ’80s horror film, with perfectly captured clothes, hairstyles and even a terrific set of freeze-framed opening credits, the movie is strangely reminiscent of Quentin Tarantino’s Grindhouse effort Death Proof in how it treats its audience’s expectations for a story.
Young college student Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) goes about her day trying to gain access to her dorm room (her roommate is getting it on inside), calling a distant babysitter job that will help her pay for the new house she’s going to rent, and meeting her friend for pizza. Like the bar scenes in the first 30 minutes of Death Proof, the actions and discussions are deceptive; they have frankly little to do with the thrust of the story, and act as signposts of a cinematic place that no longer exists. And, one assumes, that few would know to recognize anyway (which prompts the question: how do these filmmakers intend to sell their goods to young, uneducated audiences that only know contemporary narrative methods and gimmicks?). To be blunt: the Seventies and Eighties frequently look silly now, so how do you make a period horror film and not incite unintended laughter?
Samantha is offered the sitting job, but nothing is giving her a comfortable vibe about it. Mr. and Mrs. Ulman (a delightfully twitchy Tom Noonan and the long-missed Mary Woronov) live on the far end of town in a distant wooded area. Their house seems out of place just as the couple seems out of place in it. And the job is not sitting for a baby, but for Ulman’s elderly mother who is allegedly locked away upstairs in her bedroom. Just watch the house, listen for mother, and we promise to return by midnight. Did we mention there is a full lunar eclipse tonight? And that we do have a son, but he’s an adult roaming the woods? Sorry about that.
So for much of the time, Samantha roams the house as any of us might; checking each room and toying with objects throughout, she finally settles in and orders another pizza and waits. It is well past the half-way point when Samantha finally starts to notice some odd details about the house, its occupants, and surroundings. But we get further sitting, walking around and waiting. Rather abruptly, something happens. A rush of activity. And then, with only a few moments left, we’re given an explanation (though not a very satisfying one) and it all ends.
The House of the Devil is an exercise in anticipation, but even a prickly, well-paced mystery requires some substantial payoff, and the finale of the film doesn’t begin to fill the chasm left from all that waiting. To compare: it would be as if Death Proof had been a full 90 minutes of seemingly innocuous conversation and just five minutes of attacks from Kurt Russell, followed by a cold ending.
If movies could succeed on mood alone, West’s would be a huge success. And the genre sites and fans are giving him a lot of cred for it. But there’s got to be something more than feathered hair and rotary phones to make a story complete.
(The House of the Devil is available now on DVD)