FINAL GIRL explores the slasher flicks of the '70s and '80s...and all the other horror movies I feel like talking about, too. This is life on the EDGE, so beware yon spoilers!

Jul 26, 2010

Film Club: The House of the Devil

FINALLY, everyone in the universe can get off my back about Ti West's The House of the Devil (2009) because I've FINALLY seen it. No more will I quietly stand outside the Cool Kids Club, face pressed against the glass whilst everyone inside clinks their glasses of Riunite and talks about "atmosphere" and "scares" and "throwback"! That's right, folks- I still may not be cool enough to venture inside the Cool Kids Club, but now I can yell "I agree with whatever it is you're saying in there!" as everyone clinks drinks and links pinks in a big "We Love House of the Devil" caring circle.

The film is incredibly light on plot: Sam (Jocelin Donahue) is a college sophomore who's just rented her first apartment. In need of some quick cash, she answers a "babysitter wanted" ad posted around campus. Sam's pal Megan (Greta Gerwig) drives her to the Ulman house, which is far away from everything, nestled in the woods down a long, desolate road.

Upon arrival, Mr. Ulma (Tom Noonan) tells Sam that she won't be watching a child, but rather "Mother", tucked away in an upstairs bedroom. She won't be a bother, and the Ulmans are desperate for the help. Megan warns Sam that it's all way too weird; the Ulmans are liars and the disproportionate pay is too good to be true. With a big check to write to her new landlord in a few days' time, Sam is as desperate as her employers and she decides to stay. If you've ever seen a horror movie before, then you know that's totally the wrong decision.

The House of the Devil is a time capsule. It's set in 1983, and it's certainly got all the trappings of the era: the giant Walkman, the high-waisted jeans, the rotary phones; but writer/director/editor Ti West goes deeper than that. It's not about the superficial elements, but rather the filmmaking style itself that's a glimpse into the past. The pacing is ponderous and languid. The shots are long and uninterrupted- West's hand is assured and his camera placement deliberate. Samantha walks a lot- she walks to school, she walks through her dorm, she walks throughout the Ulman house, she walks down hallways and more hallways- and West shows every minute of it. The backend of the film is weighted with the action- things explode in the last 15 minutes much the way they do in John Carpenter's Halloween. Until that point, it's about building; unlike the majority of modern horror films, House of the Devil abides by the tenet that it's not the happening, it's the waiting for the happening that puts a knot in your stomach.

On the flip side, that waiting for something might bore you to tears. The payoff may not be as grand as you hoped or expected- as I mentioned, it's a thin film story-wise even during the climax. In fact, the wrap-up isn't particularly fresh or original- in fact, it got to me but it's oddly the weakest, if bloodiest, portion of the film- and I think gripes about the plot (or lack thereof) are legitimate. The film is really an example of style over substance, only the style at work here isn't the modern music video jump cut-laden one that befalls most modern horror. There's really nothing deeper at play here, and that's going to be enough for you or it's not. As for me, I suppose in this case it was enough as I was all about it. I bought into everything hook, line, sinker, and whatever else is in the tackle box. By the time Samantha put on her headphones and danced around to The Fixx, I suddenly realized that I was nervous. This film got under my skin and I didn't even know it until it was too late.

West's direction is bolstered by some terrific acting. As Sam, Donahue charms us into believing that even smart people do stupid things when they're broke. I'm almost ashamed of how happy it made me to see Dee Wallace and Mary Woronov in this. I know I was grinning stupidly and I don't care. I'll be clutching my "late 70s-early 80s horror movies FUCK YEAH" pennant in my coffin. My one complaint is that I wanted more Greta Gerwig, whose Megan was a brand of quirky I could get behind. Even in such little screen time, she became one of my favorite horror movie characters in recent memory. I'm gonna hold out hope for a Megan-centric prequel. It could happen, right?

While your mileage may vary, I think I was born to love The House of the Devil. It's a slice of horror cinema from my favorite horror era, sure, but it also got me walkin' through the park and reminiscin' about those heady days when Satanists were all the rage- and man, they were. They were out there, trolling the countryside in their Satanmobiles, looking for people to sacrifice and...and...Satanize and...well, no one was really sure what they were doing. But we were all afraid of the roving cults of Devil worshippers! My friends and I were convinced there was a "devil church" tucked waaaaaay up in the woods that were located a good drive out into the middle of nowhere. We went off in search of it several times but we'd inevitably get too scared and head home before long- probably because we always tried to find it after the sun went down. We never found it, but we talked to people who totally did. They couldn't tell us what they actually saw, but they saw the place, for reals! The truth of it didn't matter, though, it was the possibility. Sometimes that's enough, and maybe that's why I'm a sucker for movies like The House of the Devil.

So, what, nostalgia? Yeah, that's a part of my enjoyment of this film, sure. An unexamined life may not be worth living, but once in a while it's good to merely let it happen, too. As a horror fan, I'm thrilled Ti West has proven that "they don't make 'em like they used to" is no longer a given. He's got the style, now he just needs the substance.


Film Club Coolies, y'all!

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43 comments:

Robson, Proprietor said...

I scrolled back a bit (since I'm obviously underengaged at work) and did some counting, and this is the most-responded-to FGFC movie yet. Love it or hate it, people did wanna write about THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL. Congrats on the milestone!

pianogal67 said...

I thought it was great, too! Reminded me of the movies that I watched when I was a kid (in the 70's and 80s) on Saturday morning - Creature Double Feature, channel 48. (I was supposed to be cleaning my room, but I was keenly watching horror movies on my little b/w tellie. I happened to watch Scream and Scream Again and Devil's Rain on that little tellie. LOL)

BTW, I was pleasantly *surprised* that I liked The House of the Devil so much. YAY!

thomwade said...

GAH!?! How did i forget about today?! Oh yeah... lots of family trauma last week distracted me. God was doing some heavy handed smoting. Anyways, I did like this one and I cannot believe this is the same guy who made the immensely terrible Cabin Fever 2.

Stacie Ponder said...

I think the key to a large turnout is for me to choose something fairly new-ish that many people have already written about. Then everyone can just retrofit their reviews, and that's that! No renting or watching, even. It's awesome for everyone!

Jay Clarke said...

I was fairly certain you were going to dig this one, Stacie! It's kind of got your name written all over it :D

JA said...

I know it makes me king of lamesville to be relieved but I AM SO RELIEVED that you enjoyed the movie, Stacie! I didn't want to disagree on this one. And a prequel starring Greta Gerwig would rock my world. I did a lil' something for once, too.

B.E. Earl said...

Crappity crap crap crap! I forgot to do a new review for this one. But I did love it, for many of the same reasons you loved it.

I remember the heydey of Satanism too. Remember Ricky Kasso, the Acid King? Killed a kid in the woods a stone's throw from my house back in 1984 and allegedly threatened the kid with "Say you love Satan". A few books were written and a few (bad) movies were made about the case. Ah...1984. Good times.

The Floating Red Couch said...

Plus it's on the Netflix Watch It Now stream

John Eno said...

"The film is really an example of style over substance, only the style at work here isn't the modern music video jump cut-laden one that befalls most modern horror. There's really nothing deeper at play here..."

Can't say I agree. The commentary on class didn't run really deep, but there's definitely a strong subtext there.

B-Movie Becky said...

Great review. Couldn't agree more. I adored the style of the film, but yes, it is style over substance. It's fun, it's throwbacky, and it's the eighties! But the plot is thin and the climax/conclusion is definitely the weakest link. That's kind of a problem when the whole film is a slow build, leaving audiences waiting for a juicy payoff. I am a fan of Ti West though and I'll be anxious to see what he has next (besides Cabin Fever 2).

Stacie Ponder said...

Geez, Thom, hope things are better this week.

I, too, have trouble reconciling this with 'Cabin Fever 2', a film so horrendous I almost walked out. I'm going to chalk it up to some sort of studio dabbling- yeah, that's it! Faceless corporate jerks!

MrJeffery said...

Fabulous write up. I agree so much.

Emily said...

I echo a whole lot of your thoughts on this one Stacie. Amazing atmosphere with a slightly disappointing ending, but overall so full of freshness (in a weird vintage way, which doesn't really gel with the word fresh but whatever) and made by someone who clearly loves that age of horror. I too love Gerwig and also really enjoyed her in Baghead. As for Cabin Fever 2, I hated the film but do see some merit here and there that connects it. The best parts of that mess for me were the '80s Prom Night/Carrie homages (complete with ruffled tuxes, which HAD to be West's call) and the fairly nice relationship between Noah Segan and his dreamgirl. I can't say it with certainty, but I imagine we would have had a better movie had West stayed on board to the end.

Movie Bullstuff said...

You heard it here first: The cool kids club is actually an underground fascist collective bent on forcing an unsuspecting populace to wear ironic T-shirts at all times. Alerting you to this information could cost me my life (or, at the very least, street cred), but I do it because I care.

Robert H. said...

Not a bad movie, but an extremely overrated one - which just goes to show how lame the competition is. If the payoff was as skilled as the buildup, it would almost be a Great Horror Film.

Almost, that is.

Ti West still needs to work on his pacing skills... although this is far better than TRIGGER MAN was, which was excruciating in its pacing and shakicam photography.

Andre said...

Hooray! My first film club was a success I think. And aren't you amazed I didn't retro-fit my old review Stacie?.... Stacie? ......

Alright well don't be amazed just be kind of excited then.

No but seriously, I'm glad I watched this again because it only reaffirms the fact that it rocks and we are right and anyone who doesn't like it is a FRAUD.

Detector said...

They wouldn't let Ti West put Alan Smithee on Cabin Fever 2.

He went to do House Of The Devil while Cabin Fever 2 was in post production and the studio changed it and added new scenes without him and he disowned the film. It's not really fair to compare this to Cabin Fever 2 since that is not really his movie.

Although The Roost was and that sucked like the worst shit ever.

Triggerman was his best movie by far besides this.

JustSayin said...

West is the very definition of the hipster hack that is filling the space where an infinitely more capable filmmaker should be. The worst is how much praise 'Devil' has received from "fans" of the era that consider making an inferior version of a shoddy grindhouse flick, the work of genius.

All of his films are trite and he probably disowned Cabin Fever 2 after realizing how much it sucked, if that's even possible, not because someone tried to make it watchable.

If Edgar Wright had made House of the Devil, it would have garnered a 2,100+ screen theatrical release.

scarina said...

Is there a place I can get an "I love late-70's early-80's horror movies" pennants?

Stacie Ponder said...

Man, I'm glad someone finally said what I was afraid to say- that fans of things I don't like are merely "fans". Anyone who doesn't think just like me is an asshole!

matango said...

So wait, is Edgar Wright even more of a hipster hack?

I loved this movie. It would've been the best horror movie I've seen this year but for REC 2.

I keep waiting for feathered hair to come back in style.

JustSayin said...

That wasn't what I meant at all. I've never had a problem with anyone's opinion of any film, and I apologize to anyone who I offended. I just wanted House of the Devil to actually be worthy of the copious amount praise it has received. Either that or replace the walking around scenes that filled the entire 2nd act. OR make it as good as the one sheet leads me to believe it is.

And no, Wright is on the other end of the spectrum with those who possess talent.

Matt-suzaka said...

My only disagreement with your review is about Gerwig. While I did think she was pretty good, she ate pizza like such a jerk-off. Seriously, who eats pizza like that? You know she didn't wash her hands after and there is no way that a shitty one-ply napkin is going to wipe her bony fingers clean of all that nasty grease. What a pig.

Otherwise, I had the same reaction to the film as you did. I felt an incredible amount of stress that slowly mounted throughout almost the entire film.

There is really only one moment when something big happens before the film's wild finale, and that big, loud and very surprising moment was enough to make me think something else big was going to happen, but nothing does. THAT is what kept me on my tippy toes...tension that just keeps expanding, only to never really break.

West's restraint to avoid cheap scares is the biggest strength of the film, and the reason why I loved it as much as I did. It actually scared me. If you are someone looking for a quick and manufactured fix, this is not the film for you.

Bryce Wilson said...

:'(

This emocon can only represent a small portion of the infinite sadness I feel for being left out of this one.

Used Gmail and everything...

Stacie Ponder said...

Sorry 'bout that! Many links this time. Errors happen, errors get fixed!

Bryce Wilson said...

: )

This emocon expresses only a small portion of the gladness of being reincluded.

Missy Y said...

I would simply like to note that nearly every review contains a variation of these words "Dee Wallace yay!"

That's synchronicity, folks.

Detector said...

@Just Saying.

I can get what you are saying about Ti West. I mean this gets all this crazy praise while everyone pretty muched dissed the Strangers cuz it was so mainstream even though it was one of the few movies I've seen in my life that actually scared the hell out of me.

Also The Roost by Ti West is the perfect example of when Roger Ebert said the worst sin a trashy movie can make is to be boring.

You should really check out Triggerman though. That movie is so awesome, it has the same slow ass pacing of House of The Devil but once it picks up it's relentless.

The Floating Red Couch said...

You know, I thought the same thing about Gerwig and her pizza habits. I once knew a girl that never washed her hands even after using the can -- and she ate everything with her hands, including fried rice.

Needless to say, it was revolting every time we got it on --

--and she ate pizza like a jerk off too.

The Floating Red Couch said...

Can I at least offer some anti-THOTD comments here?

For crying out loud -- there's avoiding cheap scares and there's letting down the audience: if you're going to move slowly can we make it a little weirder throughout the movie? A guy with a beard that shoots a girl in the head is not going to cut it. How about some (OC) chanting or some dirty ass pigs in a bedroom -- or just hitting Sam over the head with a mallet and spending 45 minutes in the bloody orgy, rather than 10?

Sam hardly suffers at all, and that's the best part of a scary movie, isn't it? Seeing the girl that suffered this whole time, covered in blood and entrails, breathless and fatigued with a gaping wound, finally be in a position where she can pull a trigger or ram a spear into the weirdo and save herself.

I just thought ...... well, I just thought it is a tad overrated.

Stacie Ponder said...

"Sam hardly suffers at all, and that's the best part of a scary movie, isn't it?"

For you, maybe. Ask 10 horror fans to describe what the best part of a scary movie is and you'll get 20 answers.

John Eno said...

Totally. For me, protagonist suffering is almost always the least interesting part of any horror movie, because it's usually something we've seen before. And even if the specific method of torture/pain/squick is something new, it's still Dullsville if it's not employed to some end rather than simply depicting the suffering itself. The tendency to not bother to try to use that depiction of suffering for any weightier reason is the downfall of so many crappy horror movies.

The Floating Red Couch said...

perhaps I didn't convey what I meant. By suffering, I didn't mean your standard torture scene -- I meant the actual trials and tribs that our hero(ine) goes through to get the final payoff -- the running, the pit of gore, the back stabbing, seeing her friends get hacked up.

The Final Girl gets to where she is by going through 9 levels of hell (in the goodies). Then, she passes from mere scream queen to ultimate Jamie Lee Curtis badass.

The great horror movies give you a final girl that you love because said final girl has the gumption to pull herself out of the setting that had tortured her for half the movie.

In THOTD, Sam thinks this is big nice house. Gets woozy, wakes up with a witch in her face, does a head butt, slips on some blood and runs out. I don't even know why she popped herself in the head (so what if you're a part of Satan's mating cycle? -- I guess she was religious or something?) All I do know is that she's po', broke, lonely, and gots no car.

Stacie Ponder said...

The suicide attempt may have been a bit abrupt, but not every woman merely says "so what" after being essentially raped and subsequently impregnated.

I see what you're saying, but I thought Sam was pretty damn kickass, especially compared to 99% of the Final Girls out there. She was extremely proactive from the get-go, even admitting that she was getting herself into a hinky situation out of desperation. Once things got bad (and not just creepy-feeling), she fought her way out of the house, killing just about everyone- grabbing knives and guns and whatever else along the way.

whatever1964 said...

Spot on review... I was thankful for the languid pace for a change in a horror movie... the only thing that put me off was the on-screen text preface about devil worship... it was unnecessary for me...

John Eno said...

@TFRC: I got what you meant by "suffering," but that broader definition of it doesn't invalidate the point I made. Going through the standard gauntlet of Bad Shit just to get to a triumphant ending is played out, if that's a filmmaker's only reason to spend a lot of time showing the Bad Shit.

Or in other words, House is predicated on the idea that you can take the standard slasher form and do something more with it, so slavishly following the standard slasher plot formula would've missed its own point.

Matt-suzaka said...

To further what John just said, the true existence of a final girl doesn't really fit outside of the mold of a slasher film or its many sub-genres (torture, Gialli, etc...). House isn't a slasher film, so she should not really be compared to the final girl mold.

John Eno said...

@Matt-suzaka: I'm actually really surprised that no one (to my knowledge) has used the Inanna myth more directly, instead of the bastardized version of it that the Final Girl narrative has been codified into. I think there's awesome potential for a movie which plays through the typical Final Girl arc in half or less of the movie, and then moves on from there with the FG actually empowered rather than just having been lucky enough to live (until the first scene of the sequel). I guess that Hack/Slash comic is something like that, now that I think about it? Haven't actually read it to know.

CashBailey said...

One thing I really appreciated about this movie was that it was shot on Super16mm film, and it looks GREAT.

Hopefully other low-budget horror film-makers will take this example and realise that not everything has to be shot on blurry-ass HD video.

Ryan said...

I'm glad I'm not the only one who LOVED Greta Gerwig in this and wished she had more screen time. Donahue was great, too. I just wish the movie was better overall. I will say that The House of the Devil definitely captures the 80s better than any recent movie I can think of, but I was one of the people who kept looking at the clock once she got to the house and wondering when something was going to happen. I love suspense, but you can't leave the audience hanging for pretty much the whole movie. You gotta give them something they can bite on (and no, not pizza) in the meantime, until you decide to sucker punch them. And unfortunately, the ending wasn't impressive to me. That said, I am willing to give this movie another chance. Now that I know what to expect, maybe I'll enjoy it more.

John Bem said...

I've finally finished reading all of the Film Club reviews (and all of the comments above): An amazing array of opinions; very fascinating to read the various viewpoints. I don't recall a single middle-of-the road opinion, it seems it's all hate or all love. I enjoyed reading everyone's writeups. Thanks for the opportunity to join in.

StuartOhQueue said...

Wish I would have been able to review this one way back when... Such a cool movie.

The ending wasn't entirely satisfactory but was much in keeping with the period being imitated by Ti West.

Dean said...

My wife complained about how long the movie had gone with "nothing happening", just as I was admiring how long the movie had gone with "nothing happening". By the time Sam closed the closet she was snooping in and there WASN'T someone standing behind the door for a cheap jump scare, I was grinning like an idiot. Dates me without the benefit of carbon-14, I guess.