They don’t make ‘em like this anymore. (Actually, maybe they never did…)
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There was once a time when horror movies had a point, and it wasn’t to amuse you, to make you laugh with copious quipping and silly kills. No, the point of the horror movie was to scare you. And we’re not talking about the kind of quick, shallow scares (oh look, there’s someone walking behind someone else!) that cause you to yelp and clutch your S.O.’s hand…and are then quickly forgotten about. No, we’re talking about the kind of scares that make you soil your shorts, give you screaming nightmares and doubt the omnipresent love of God. Don’t you miss that time?
Of course you don’t, and the reason you don’t is because there never was such a time. It was invented by crotchety old fucks like me (I’m 40…well, nearly 40) as a sort of horror-fans’ equivalent of “Get off my lawn, you damn kids.” The reason horror movies are popular is because they’re entertainment. Sure you, could watch a steady diet of cinema extolling existential nihilism and alienation and set to a Goblin soundtrack, but then you’d end up staring down the barrel of middle age, resentful of the era you grew up in, unable to relate to people beyond sitting on the internet til all hours of the night ranting at people about how they’re just plain wrong about Fringe, but enough about me.
Still, the nice thing about this whole “throwback retro ’80s nostalgia” thing is that every so often someone will make the sort of movie they should have made in the ’80s but didn’t, because they were too busy trying to figure out what new, novel environment they could wedge Jason Voorhees into. The House of the Devil is one of those movies, and let me tell you, it is a crackerjack. It’s so good I’ll even forgive it for being about Satanists, a trope I’m usually not impressed with.
It stars Jocelin Donahue as Samantha, a college student who (at some indeterminate point between 1980 and 1989) takes a shady “babysitting” job for a ridiculous amount of money because she needs the dough to pay for her own apartment (all the better to get away from her slobby dorm roommate who apparently does nothing but shag her boyfriend 24/7). Is this offer too good to be true? Sweetheart, do you really need to ask me that question?
Writer/director Ti West has a job to do, and that’s scaring his audience. He does this by stripping down his formula to the bare minimum. Other than Samantha, there’s only a couple of roles that have more than a handful of scenes. The plot is very bare-bones–looking back on the movie, I’m a bit surprised at, in retrospect, how little actually happens–and the pace is set to “slow burn.” In fact, if there’s a single thing House of the Devil is about more than anything else, it’s tension. Be patient.
West is not interested in making you laugh. There’s a few laughs, but those expecting a Whedonesque deconstructive horror-comedy are going to be disappointed. If you’re one of those people, for Christ’s sake you need to realize that Buffy is not the be-all and end-all of Western civilization. West is also not interested in freaking you out every five minutes with jump-scares and the like. He confines the outright terror to three or four clumps throughout the film and one huge fucking ten-ton weight at the end. Undoubtedly some of you will roll your eyes and call this “boring,” and my advice to you is to is to take whatever it was your doctor prescribed you for your ADD, then shut up and watch the rest of the movie. Or maybe you should go find something with Will Smith and some explosions and watch that instead.
And have I mentioned the cast yet? Donahue seems to be a rarity amongst actresses nowadays: not only is she just plain adorable, particularly when she’s bouncing around the house in her mommy jeans (shut up, I think mommy jeans are hot!) to the tune of “One Thing Leads to Another,” she can also act. Meanwhile, Tom Noonan, Mary Woronov and A.J. Bowen have figured out that, when playing a villain, being subtle and reserved often works better than going over the top and trying to suck everything else in the movie towards you like you’re some sort of Method black hole.
Am I exaggerating my response to this film? Definitely. I like a good funny horror movie as much as the next guy (assuming the next guy isn’t Brent Bozell or someone like that), and I’m vocal in my love for Hatchet, Behind the Mask and The Cabin in the Woods. But I’ll be honest: I find West’s approach here refreshing. Entertainment is great. Deconstruction is just fine, when it works. But at the end of the day, all I want is to be terrified out of my tiny little mind–and I’d like to thank The House of the Devil for proving that it’s not too much to ask.Have You Read...?