Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #43
Number of Views: Two
Release Date: October 30, 2009
Country of Origin: United States
Running Time: 95 minutes
Director: Ti West
Producers: Josh Braun, Derek Curl, Roger Kass, Peter Phok, Larry Fessenden
Screenplay: Ti West
Special Effects: Christian Beckman
Cinematography: Eliot Rockett
Score: Jeff Grace
Editing: Ti West
Studio: Glass Eye Pix, Constructovision, Ring The Jig Entertainment
Distributors: MPI Media Group, Dark Sky Films
Stars: Jocelin Donahue, Greta Gerwig, Tom Noonan, Mary Woronov, A.J. Bowen, Dee Wallace
Suggested Audio Candy
 The Fixx “One Thing Leads to Another”
 Jeff Grace “The House of the Devil”
Every once in a while a movie appears from absolutely nowhere and totally reinvigorates your faith in horror. Not that mine was wavering mind, but admittedly the past decade has yielded barely a handful of true classics to match the likes of the films being churned out bi-weekly during the genre’s zenith. Every once in a while a director emerges from the current crop of young hopefuls to establish himself as a potential Carpenter, Romero, Argento for the next generation of rabid devotees. And every once in a while a film reminds you that the future need not be as bleak as it has appeared for way too long. One such film is Ti West’s superlative The House of the Devil.
The first word that springs to mind is authentic. I defy anyone without any prior awareness of this film to guess the year in which it was produced correctly. West’s film positively bleeds authenticity and it is abundantly clear that this project was a real labor of love for the young American filmmaker. Everything from the opening and closing credits, the props and locations used, cast, their hair, clothing and acting style simply reeks authenticity. Even the grainy degradation of the film print used is totally evocative of a seventies/eighties chillers it celebrates and, bearing all of these factors in mind, this homage to the old haunted house movies of yesteryear pulls off a quite extraordinary feat.
Add two parts Suspiria, a healthy helping of Unhinged and a dash of When a Stranger Calls and leave to simmer. Et voila. West’s film doesn’t aim for originality but, on the other hand, no post-millennium horror has managed to emulate its inspirations so effectively so I guess that makes it something of a designer original. West deserves massive kudos for achieving the unachievable and, moreover, doing so with considerable aplomb. He wears his influences and inspirations proudly and it is clear that anyone who has the privilege of being introduced to this stellar throwback to a largely forgotten era will be left breathless and speechless in equal measures. Indeed, if you were to dissect this man I am convinced you would discover horror running through his very ventricles like stunning crimson rivers (pun intended as I believe I possess the same rare blood type).
Set in 1983, it focuses on pretty young thing Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) as she procures a rental from kindly landlady (Dee Wallace) who decides not to charge a deposit. Luck is on her side right? Not quite. While Samantha gratefully accepts this token gesture, money is still tighter than her denims, and she has to come up with $300 fast or she stands to lose her new apartment. So she does what any cash-strapped teenager would do in her predicament and answers an advertisement for a one-off babysitting gig. However, something stinks in suburbia and Samantha can’t shake the feeling that this generously paid job isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
These concerns are echoed by her best pal Megan (Greta Gerwig) but, after failing in talking Samantha out of it, she agrees to drive her to this secluded house in the woods to ensure that no funny business transpires. She considers herself a true friend and is very protective of Samantha so taking no for an answer is not an applicable option. The pair set off and arrive at their location in typically high spirits. Said spirits are about to be well and truly dashed as the front door opens and the pair are cordially invited inside.
To begin with, Mr. Ulman (Tom Noonan) appears to be a harmless enough fellow. He’s quirky for damned sure, eccentric unquestionably but, despite his towering frame and odd demeanor, he looks frail enough not to pose any direct threat. However, Megan’s spider sense is tingling and, desperate not to miss the once-in-a-lifetime solar eclipse, he ups the payment plan. Whilst still feeling a tad uneasy, Samantha agrees to the new terms and her friend reluctantly leaves her to her own devices. Mr. Ulman’s wife then emerges from the basement (a warning sign if ever there was one) and, true to form, Mrs. Ulman (Mary Woronov) is every bit as kooky as her spouse. However, $400 is not to be sniffed at and what could possibly happen in a few hours of looking after a frail defenceless geriatric?
That’s right, there are no screaming toddlers in the Ulman household and, instead, a dotty old lady who nobody ever sees hide nor hair of. Tucked away in her upstairs chamber like a dirty little secret, this unknown quantity is one that Samantha isn’t entirely comfortable with gatekeeping. As the Ulmans depart for their big night out and she settles in for duration, things start soon taking a turn for the more sinister and any doubts are replaced with fears accordingly. I shall reveal no more as the experience is one best not neutered. However, I will say this, it’s one fucked up night at the office for Samantha and, with a dubious stranger (A.J. Bowen) prowling the perimeter with intent, things are going to get a whole lot worse before they get better.
The House of the Devil is the embodiment of slow-burning palpable terror. We’re talking sweaty palms and rigid neck hairs here. It takes its sweet time and, considering the scale of what West achieves through this patient approach, why the hell shouldn’t it? He steadily cranks up the suspense to unbearable levels and then, just when you start to feel secure, assaults you with uncharacteristic bursts of violence that will leave your jaw gaping. It did mine. Should you have had the pleasure of viewing Nicolas Winding Refn’s delicious throwback Drive then you should be aware of the potential for effectively pummeling your audience with sporadic bursts of violence, interspersed with long periods of calm. This approach works far more productively than constantly desensitizing them with a non-stop slew of unpleasantries and the same very much applies here.
When our crowning moment arrives, we are totally ill-prepared and have our beloved blankie whipped away from us like Linus on wash day. I recall looking to my left with a stupid grin on my face once I’d regained my composure before realizing that I was sitting in a darkened room, headphones on and volume maxed out, with not a solitary spotter in sight. Said grin then widened further. I never EVER watch a horror flick in any other manner. As a self-confessed nervous jumping bean I believe that it is essential to crank up the silence and dim the lights before entering such ominous confines. The House of the Devil justifies that decision.
West doesn’t concern himself with making a film for the masses. It is abundantly clear that this is an experience for that particular niche of true rabid horror enthusiasts and by doing this he has built enough of a following to be afforded the opportunity of making more mainstream horror if he so chooses, whilst already having an established fan base who will follow him unconditionally. I would proudly consider myself one such zealot. If I was to state that I would keep an eye out for his future work I would simply be playing it cool. The truth is that, after spending 95 emotion-fraying minutes in the wretched house that this man built, I will follow his endeavors indefinitely.
I mentioned at the offset that West pulls off an astonishing feat with the look and feel of his movie and yearn to elaborate on this further. He used 16mm film to give The House of the Devil its stylistic appearance, using zoom as opposed to a dolly, harking back once more to the era he is romanticizing over. From the title screen boasting freeze-frames and old-school yellow font to the end credits that scroll over the motionless final image, every single frame positively bleeds authenticity. There are no iPods poking out of pockets, only a Sony Walkman, hair is feathered, music is bona fide eighties and the Volvo 240 Sedan gets a long overdue run out. These are all signifiers of my darling period and he captures each exquisitely.
I would stick my neck out at the time of writing and state my firm belief that The House of the Devil is one of the most vital slabs of post-millennium horror cinema. It has the whole kit and caboodle, impossibly recreates an era long since passed and leaves you with a twisted gut that will not unravel for days after viewing, not to mention an allegiance to its director that will last a lifetime.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 10/10
Grue Factor: 3/5
For the Grue-Guzzlers: It isn’t always about quantity. One moment is all you need and The House of The Devil has itself a doozy. For the record, if a bearded stranger ever inquires whether or not you are the babysitter, think long and hard about your response. The closing act provides plenty of deep red to reward our perseverance and, whilst never an outright bloodbath, Christian Beckman supplies more than enough splatter to sate our appetites for destruction.
Richard Charles Stevens
Keeper of The Crimson Quill
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