Wednesday, October 30, 2019

The House of the Devil (Ti West, 2009)

Been way too long since I covered a single movie and as I'd seen that the tenth anniversary of the limited theatrical release of this arguable modern classic (and personal favourite) was coming up today, I figured it'd be a perfect film to do a deep dive into.

For anyone unfamiliar and before I get into spoiler territory, I'll jump right ahead and give this my highest recommendation (implicit in the preceding paragraph, of course), with one note of caution. That is, a phrase which is almost invariably and rightly used in relation to this movie is "slow burn". If you've no problem with films which take their time, are deliberately paced and allow you (in the director's words, which I'm paraphrasing) to wallow in the more mundane aspects of the movie's world, hanging out with the characters and getting to know them, then you'll most likely dig this. If not, you might lose patience with it.

This'll be less a review and more a love letter, so to speak but again, for the benefit of anyone who hasn't seen it, here's the setup. College student Samantha Hughes (Jocelin Donahue) needs money so she can move out of her shared dorm room and into an apartment. She accepts a babysitting job to pay for it but everything about the gig screams "this is weird as fuck, don't do it, don't do it, DON'T DO IT!!!". A sentiment loudly echoed by her best friend, Megan (Greta Gerwig). Despite all this, of course she does it anyway.

And that's all you need to know. Plus the title (and some pre-credits text situating things in the midst of the 1980s satanic panic) really puts the proverbial cards on the table. So yeah, if all that sounds appealing, go watch it and come back and read the rest later. SPOILERS FROM HERE ON IN! 

Like I said, this movie announces its intent instantly and continues to from its opening shot onwards. We begin by zooming in on our heroine, while some spare, icy music plays (more on the score later), giving us the sense of her being watched, a feeling which will persist and intensify once we get to the titular house. 

Again, I'm not trying to critique the film and am more here to simply celebrate and talk about things I love about it. Which is everything, really. But to begin with, the cast are superlative, through and through. First and foremost of course, Jocelin Donahue, who the camera follows from the first shot to the last. She's eminently watchable and instantly likeable, from the moment we meet her, when she's speaking to her prospective new landlady, play by none other than genre legend Dee Wallace, who takes a shine to her (to indulge a pun for a moment, it's been suggested that she may have The Shining in real life and I wonder if her character does too. She talks about going off her gut feeling a few times. And more on The Shining later), as Samantha reminds her of her own daughter. After generously agreeing to waive the usual deposit, they part ways, Samantha walks away beaming, and cue the credits (we'll come back to the cast shortly).

As Ti West says, the opening title sequence really helps set the tone for the film. From the wonderfully '80s freeze frame over the title itself and some of the credits, through to the also period appropriate main theme by Mike Armstrong, it gets things going very nicely and provides an interesting counterpoint to both the rest of the score (composed by Jeff Grace. More on that later) and the pace of most of the movie.

Back to the cast. Again, I think they really lucked out with Jocelin Donahue. As more than most films, we spend practically all of the film observing her, often in long scenes with minimal or no dialogue, of course it's vitally important that we enjoy spending time with her. And furthermore, it makes us want to shout and scream at her even more not to go in that bloody house and to get the hell out. Which brings me neatly to her best friend, Megan. 

Played by a scene stealing Greta Gerwig, she's an absolute delight to hang out with, so to speak. Unpretentious, funny and takes no bullshit off anyone, she's clearly a great friend. Understanding and helpful but also sharp enough to hear the alarm bells ringing and caring enough to not only drive Samantha to the house but also to beg and plead with her not to take the job. But also respectful enough of her friend to give in to her tenacious desire to go for the gig, no matter how weird it obviously looks. I mean she's clearly pissed off but still isn't gonna leave Samantha hanging for a ride home. Until that choice is taken away from her, of course.

These two aside, as I said, the whole cast are amazing. Another pair that are a case in point are two more horror legends, Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov. Again, perfect casting. They both play right down the razor's edge between being ostensibly warm and welcoming and creepy as fuck. And all the other supporting players are excellent too. From AJ Bowen, who would later appear with Ti West in another modern favourite of mine, You're Next, a few years later, to Samantha's slob of a roommate (Heather Robb) and her "Random Guy" (played by Darryl Nau). The latter pair are only in the film very briefly but they crack me up every time.

As he not only directed but also wrote and edited the film, I suppose you could consider Ti West something of an auteur here. I've only seen this, The Innkeepers (another favourite, which I'll discuss some other time) and The Sacrament (which was good but not something I've ever really had the itch to re-watch) but he does seem to have a fairly consistent, identifiable style. Mainly in terms of pacing. Again, I really appreciate that the film takes its time. I'm convinced that this makes the impact of the film's more shocking scenes all the more so. 

Back to the music, like I said, most of the score is by Jeff Grace and I think it really helps heighten all the creeping dread. From the aforementioned ominous opening cue, through to some more discordant and tense themes as things start looking seriously dire and beyond, it hits all the right notes, pun unintended. By proxy, props also to sound designer Graham Reznick. Visuals aside, sound is such a crucial component to the film and I think his work supplements the music very effectively. 

The cinematography, by Eliot Rockett, is also excellent. Shot on 16mm and using the sadly now out of fashion zoom quite a bit, it is, again, very period appropriate. As folks often say about the movie, between all of these things and the hairstyles, clothes, production design details etc, you could maybe fool someone into thinking this was from the '80s. But I digress. I love the look of the film and the lighting, from the early, brighter, chilly looking scenes, to all the wonderfully moody stuff around the house itself, it's another element of the movie which doesn't miss a step.

As I alluded to earlier, I love how much of the film is practically and sometimes completely wordless, or, as some might put it, purely cinematic. I think it really helps increase the sense of isolation, especially as things proceed and the tension mounts up. And even in more humourous moments, it's just fun to observe the characters. I mean that's pretty much always Samantha of course but I always get a kick out of the scene where Megan is left alone in the Ullman's living room and is trying the sweets in the bowl out. The first one is apparently nasty but she puts it in a tissue for later (maybe?). And after that it's all good. 

I'm skipping around a bit now but I always enjoy the car ride they have up to the house. It reminds me very much of the same scene in Halloween. I think they're even shot very similarly. And like Halloween, great use of a then contemporary song on the radio during the drive, in this case, "One of Our Submarines" by Thomas Dolby. There might have been another song there too but sorry, I forget. 

Speaking of songs, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention maybe the best scene in the movie. Well, certainly the most fun, I think, anyway. Yup, where Samantha, after exhausting other options for killing boredom and time, dances round the house to "One Thing Leads to Another" by The Fixx. Aside from being a great song and a delightful scene to watch (up there in the pantheon of great dance scenes in movies for me, with, say, A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge), it provides a great and much welcome breather, pause, relief, what have you, at precisely the right moment in the film. But it's also inspired, in that it serves a great plot purpose as well. That is, when she breaks the vase, it brings us quite literally crashing back to reality and then leading back into the intrigue and suspense.

I think I've said most of what I wanted to, so I'll wrap up shortly but first, a bit about the reveal. I mean there's sort of two, or maybe more, I guess. Sure, there's lots of initial indications that things aren't right but the first major one is really when we see the fate of the family who originally inhabited the house, which itself is an immensely chilling moment. But I'm talking about the big one.

When I first saw the movie, late one night, years ago now, on the UK's Horror Channel, I think, it knocked me for six. The ritual itself is scary enough but when Samantha's escaped from that and after the blood bath that unfolds (plus the reveal of Megan's fate/face, or now lack of it, is downright fucking messed up) and Mother's visage starts crowding in on her, it kind of freaked me out a bit, as I recall. I think it was that awful sense of inescapability which made it so horrible to watch, especially, as I keep saying, given how much we care for Samantha. And of course, even attempted suicide doesn't allow her to wrestle free of her ghastly fate. Slight side note before we conclude, I love that the house is by a cemetery, seeing as I'm such a huge fan of the Fulci film of that name. 

I'm not gonna go into trivia so much as that's all widely available elsewhere. But a couple of points. Firstly, it's such a damn shame this was apparently a financial flop, owing to its all too limited release. Though it's thankfully generated a cult following among genre fans, right from the get go. But still, I think it deserved a much wider release and wish it was better known. Secondly, just a little thing I noticed, connecting, sort of, to an upcoming release. That is, I wonder if the name Ullman is a hat tip to The Shining. I say that as apparently Jocelin Donahue is gonna be in Doctor Sleep. And I suppose you could say there are sort of parallels between House of the Devil and The Shining. In both, the protagonists take jobs they really shouldn't and both arguably pass a point of no return when they effectively do deals with the devil, Jack Torrance for a drink and Samantha when she ups her price for what it'll take for her to do the job. Also, some of the discordant tense string music in the score for House sort of reminds me of the modern classical music Kubrick used for his film.

Right, I've kept you folks long enough and as always, thanks to anyone who's stayed with me through this rambling, raving post. Like I said, just wanted to take the opportunity to celebrate a favourite of mine and of course, the tenth anniversary of its limited release was an ideal time to do so. I watched it earlier this month, so while I was tempted to again tonight (and still might. We'll see), I think I'll hold off a bit. Besides, got some friends that I'd like to introduce to the film in the none too distant. But if you haven't seen it in a while, needless to say, it'd be a perfect time to re-watch it, either tonight, tomorrow for Halloween, of course, or sometime during the dark season. And after now countless re-watches of this and Carpenter's classic, I'd say folks can look after their own kids or elderly relatives. I doubt you could pay me enough to do either anymore. 

No comments:

Post a Comment