"This one night changes everything for me..."
I remember when horror used to take it's time. Before MTV and seizure inducing editing, a story was allowed to unfold at its own pace, take its time to build up atmosphere and characters. Older films did this with fantastic payoffs; which brings us to the most interesting “Retro” film of the past few years, Ti West’s House of the Devil.
Shot on 16 mm film, House of the Devil captures a time when true horror was at its final peak. A time when horror was tension filled, apprehension built, and violence was realistically brutal.
Set in the 1980’s, the film opens with the grainy introduction of our heroine, Samantha Hughes, played by Jocelin Donahue, admiring the view from an apartment she hopes to rent from a kind landlady (Dee Wallace). Samantha secures the apartment, but needs to make $300 within a week to pay the first month’s rent on move in. Desperately searching her college campus’s bulletin boards, she comes across a babysitting job and figures she can earn some quick, under the table cash.
After a botched first meeting, we are introduced to Samantha’s best friend, Megan (Greta Gerwig), at a local pizza joint. Megan is a rough around the edges, party girl type, who takes down all of the babysitting fliers to ensure that Samantha will get the job (Thanks pal!)
Megan then proceeds to drive her to the isolated Victorian home where she will presumably spend a few hours watching a child for $100. Once they arrive, they are met by the oddly desperate Mr. Ulman (the uniquely creepy Tom Noonan), who informs Samantha that she has been regrettably duped. The babysitting gig was in fact a ploy to obtain a sitter for his wife’s elderly mother, as they have a special engagement to attend this evening. Samantha insist that she is the wrong girl for the job, but is lured to stay when an extra $300 is thrown on the table. $400 plus a $20.00 for pizza, SOLD!
This is where things go wrong. Megan leaves under protest, but promises to be back later. Her fate is as sealed by leaving as Samantha’s is sealed by staying. After a gruesome and brutal murder, the tension mounts at a slow but effective pace. This film takes it’s time to remind us that the house is not always a home and that the elderly are not always kind, but exceptionally evil due to their years of practice.
We know that there is something evil in the house; we know that she is being watched, and that knowledge is what drives the film. Even though the onscreen actions seem mundane at first, we become uncomfortable as she sits, watching news of the impending eclipse, by an open window, or as she climbs the staircase into the darkness above where the elderly woman lurks behind a locked door. Ti West doesn’t rely on cheap scares or constant bloodletting, for him it’s all about atmosphere and the art of the slow burn.
Like his first film, The Roost, West shows an affinity for early eighties style horror and a respect for the films that built that foundation. One only needs to look at the several posters created for promotion to see his intent. Another great throwback brought into service is the freeze frame credits sequence, which, combined with the grainy images and excellently retro score really loses you in the experience. To quote Reservoir Dogs: “Let’s talk about the details, because it’s the details that sell your story”. I owned one of those cumbersome Sony Walkmans that would always end up getting dropped and every girl I knew had one of those ugly, puffy windbreaker jackets. There is nothing in that film that feels false and that is part of what sells the terror. It is exactly the kind of film I would have rented and watched on a rainy evening and for that I am grateful.
This is not the pizza party and beer kind of film, let me stress that opinion. It is a film for a couple or two to enjoy in the quiet dark, where your imaginations can go crazy in the late hours and make you apprehensive about having to trek down that long hall for a middle of the night bathroom run. It will play on your mind when you order pizza from a “mom and pop” pizza place, are stopped by a stranger in the middle of the night, or hear strange noises in the dark of your own home. A film that will still have you looking over your shoulder after you’ve turned on the light.