The House of the Devil



Laura Clifford 
The House of the Devil

The House of the Devil

Robin Clifford 

College sophomore Samantha Hughes (Jocelin Donahue) is desperate to get her own place, but once she finds one, she realizes she's a bit short on cash, even if her new landlady (Dee Wallace, "E.T.," "Rob Zombie's Halloween") is willing to forego a security deposit.  Samantha's drawn to a babysitting ad that promises $100, but she's stood up by Mr. Ulman (Tom Noonan, "Manhunter," "The Roost"), the man who'd agreed to meet her on campus.  When he calls back begging for her help that evening, Sam's friend Megan (Greta Gerwig, "Baghead") agrees to drive her to the remote Victorian, but Megan's upset about the whole deal - something's just not right.  Sam should have listened to her friend because she is about to spend the night of a lunar eclipse in "The House of the Devil."

Laura:
Writer/editor/director Ti West ("The Roost," the upcoming "Cabin Fever 2") celebrates the horror films of the early 1980's by lovingly recreating one with "The House of the Devil," but despite his fine attention to detail, a great cast and a deliciously edgy build, West can't bring his film to the finish line.  "The House of the Devil" is terrific for a little over an hour before it hits its climax and succumbs to illogic and is drained of all its well acquired tension.

The film begins as Sam makes her way around campus to the strains of some seriously cheesy synth music (courtesy of Jeff Grace, "The Roost," "I Sell the Dead"). After a delightful cameo from "The Howling's" Wallace, Sam calls the number on the 'too-good-to-be-true' babysitting ad from a pay phone and leaves a message.  Before she is out of earshot, the phone rings back (remember, there was no caller ID or Last Call Return technology twenty-five plus years ago). After waiting unsuccessfully for the caller, Sam complains to Megan over pizza, but when she returns to her dorm, her roomie says she got a call.  Mr. Ulman is full of apologies and begs her to take his job as another girl proved unreliable.  Once there (it's a long, dark ride to a house which recalls the one in 1986's "House"), the black-clad, walking caned Mr. Ulman asks if he may speak to Sam in private and admits that he has lied - there is no child.  However is wife (Mary Woronov, "Eating Raoul," "The Devil's Rejects") is a bit paranoid about leaving her mother alone and he finds that most girls Sam's age shy away from elder care ads.  He sweetens the deal, and, in a move that loses her some considerable sympathy if not motivation, Sam counters him up to $400 (the economics of the film are the one area West falls down on - $400 in the early 80's would be beyond inconceivable, just as the $8 for a medium pepperoni pizza delivery is).  Mrs. Ulman, wearing her black hair in a severe bun and clad in black fur, surprises Sam in the living room and behaves a bit too maternally for comfort.  Megan leaves in a huff, believing Sam has gone back on the deal to leave if things seem amiss.

Sam begins to tentatively explore the house.  She tries to call Megan, but keeps getting her answering machine (Megan never makes it home in a rather shocking demise).  She orders her extortionate pizza from the number Mr. Ulman mentioned twice (AND left another $20 for!). There's a harpsichord nestled beside the staircase, but Sam's afraid of disturbing 'Mother.' Channel 13 (hardee-har) only has news about the lunar eclipse, set to climax at midnight, or a Frightmare Theater presentation of "Night of the Living Dead." In a great sequence, she takes out her Bible-sized walkman, slips in a cassette of The Fixx's "One Thing Leads to Another," and dances about the house in her high-waisted jeans.  She also bumps into and breaks a vase, and when she goes into an upstairs closet to sweep up the debris, she begins to find things that at first seem odd, then disturbing.  We recognize the pizza delivery man and are not surprised when Sam discovers it doesn't taste very good.

West peppers his script with lots of little subtle delighters, and the film gets the 80's vibe down from Sam and Megan's Farrah do's to the music.  Horror film references of the time include not only babysitting and the house, but satanic cults and the former helplessness of breaking down on a rural road.  Wallace and Woronov, of course, also belong to the time period and if Noonan appeared a little later, his gaunt preacher-like appearance recalls "Phantasm's" Caretaker.  Unfortunately, although Noonan's quiet rush of words and almost intimate manner are unsettling, he was far creepier in the 1994 blind date movie "What Happened Was...," But Donahue's up to the task of carrying the film and Gerwig adds some punch.

If only West had continued to tighten the screws, but once the truth of Sam's situation is out there, he gives his heroine too much slack.  Still, it is far better than what usually passes for horror these days and West shows a knack for the genre.

B-

"The House of the Devil" is available On Demand with theatrical rollouts beginning on 10/30/2009.

Robin:
Robin did not see this film.
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