Over the past 2 to 3 years, the horror genre has seen it’s fair share of newcomers who, fortunately, have to ability and smarts to make solid genre films that tap into new territory while still keeping one foot planted firmly in their roots. And though their roots don’t extend as far back as the William Castle/Universal Pictures era, they’ve been able to utilize the influence of the slasher and Italian-style subgenres with great results. Names like Adam Green (Hatchet), Paul Solet (Grace), Jon Knautz (Jack Brooks:Monster Slayer), and Bruce McDonald (Pontypool) have breathed new life into North American horror films. We can now add Ti West’s name to that list.
With his Dark Sky Films debut The House of the Devil, West ventures back to a time when cell phones and Internet were not at the ready disposal of every human being on the planet. Basically, if something horrible were going to happen, there is no means to immediately call for help and document the occurrences. Set in a small college town, the story follows a young co-ed named Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) who’s just signed her first new apartment lease and is now in a race against the clock to figure out how the hell she’s going to pay for it. After spotting a flyer for someone in need of a babysitter, she responds to the add, only to find herself in a game of phone tag with the flyer’s poster. Though Samantha’s friend has urged her to not take the job, she decides the money is too good to pass up and takes the people up on their offer. Unfortunately, the couple’s add was not entirely truthful because she finds out she’s not going to be babysitting in the traditional sense but rather keeping an eye on the mother in law of the gentleman in need of immediate assistance (perfectly played and understated by the far too often overlooked, Tom Noonan). This sets into motion a series of events that continuously increase in terror, right up to the films explosive climax. The family isn’t necessarily looking for a last minute babysitter but rather, a vessel for their satanic sacrifices and rituals. And so, Samantha finds herself not only pitted against her own psyche and fears but the vile workings of a family dedicated to the occult.
Ti West did everything right in making this film. Yes, he has some cool genre-savvy cameos (the aforementioned Tom Noonan as well as Dee Wallace, and the always intimidating Mary Woronov) and yes, he sets the film in the 80’s, in all it’s fashion-less glory. But the movie has so much more heart and edge that a lot of it’s contemporaries aren’t able to capture. As Jimmy McDonough told me, everything comes back around to being in style again, at some point. Naturally, the 80’s would be no exception. The House of the Devil isn’t one of those post-modern, ironic flicks. Instead, that era is used as a backdrop to happenings that are timeless in their fearful nature. While today we may all be too cynical to truly believe in the idea of a violent satanic cult, there was a period of time where the media and religious fanatics had the country on edge, fearing these things to be a reality. West’s greatest accomplishment here is making this idea truly, truly scary. There are some blood and gore effects in the film, but the scares don’t rely on them at all. The scares are good old fashioned mind tricks. Before the lead character even knows what kind of fuckery goes on in this house, she sets off to explore and finds that all the noises and eeriness of the house itself are enough to make you want to burst. There are so many moments in this movie that take that slow, uphill climb to tension building, it takes all of your energy to not just burst out in screams or nervous laughter. I actually found myself squirming as the movie carried out its dark games.
Two of the best used characters in the movie are the house itself and the brilliant score that accompanies the movie. In the past, the music in a film was used to creat potent suspense. Anyone who’s seen Dario Argento’s or Roman Polanski’s earlier work knows that a score can terrify you the same as a faceless killer with an axe but anymore, films are polluted with hip soundtracks and “music inspired by the film” sorta bullshit. West opts for the high road here by coupling an amazingly placed score with set pieces that give the viewers the willies. The music builds with each step Samantha takes down a blackened staircase, crescendoing at the exact moment of impact, it calculates the emotions that both the female lead and the viewer are experiencing-ah, perfection. Perfect execution of dramtic heightening that we NEVER see anymore. Perfect use of the quiet/loud dynamics-perfect, perfect, perfect!!!
The House of the Devil has everything in it that made movies like Amityville II, Rosemary’s Baby, The Shining, and The Omen so damn scary. The cinematography is wonderful and considering she’s virtually unknown, Jocelin Donahue’s performance in the lead role is as strong as any veteran genre actress I’ve seen. While it’s definitely got all the details in order to please the most hardened of genre critics, tHotD has the right ingredients to be the movie that kids watch at slumber parties for years to come. It’s got all the right scares in all the right places and still looks like a film made someone who truly cares about his art. Ti West can stand in line with his brethren in horror proudly knowing he made a soon-to-be classic horror film Easily one of the best horror films I’ve seen over the last 2 years.