Saturday, October 3, 2009

Ti West's The House of the Devil (2009)

Ti West's aptly-titled The House of the Devil (2009) embraces a theme that I often think about (usually while driving my pick-up truck or while stuck in traffic): technology. Culturally, technology is a beautiful thing: often its advancements are celebrated and quickly integrated into our daily lives. There in no quicker way to earn the moniker "grandpa/ma" than to not have some new gadget; in fact, it's even expected (think of your boy/girlfriend or spouse being not able to reach you twenty-four hours a day on a cell phone). Technology has also been embraced by art: where would science-fiction be without strong imaginations aided by the artist's view of present and/or future technology? However in some genres, specifically horror, technology has become (not always) a detriment. In 1975, Stephen King published his phenomenal horror novel, 'Salem's Lot, about the literal death of the titular small town in Maine by vampires. King's novel became more prescient than possibly its author (or reader) imagined. The motif of small-town isolation was key to the novel's success while culturally, the small town in the U.S. was about to metaphorically die: gadgets and innovations, such as the cell phone and the internet make isolation impossible. As soon as the first pair of fangs would have sunk into the neck of the first victim, someone at the local drugstore would have tweeted its happening from his/her iPhone. 'Salem's Lot could not be set in present day and neither could West set his 2009 film during present day. The House of the Devil is set in the Walkman/tight pants/big-hair era of the 80s, and God Bless Ti West for it. Here we go:
Sophomore college student Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) is perusing her prospective apartment for rent from The Landlady (Dee Wallace). Samantha desperately desires some independence and privacy: her very messy roommate likes to shag in the early morning, sleep during the day, and attend classes leisurely. Samantha's problems are also financial: she doesn't have enough money to cover the deposits for the apartment, but The Landlady cuts her some slack and waives them. She'll take only the first month's rent by Monday, and the apartment will be Samantha's. Samantha is grateful, but her financial woes continue. She needs a job to come up with the money to live off campus. On a bulletin board, outside of her dorm, Samantha spies a posting for a "Babysitter Wanted" and a phone number. She dials the number from a pay phone and gets an answering machine. Samantha leaves a message, and as she is walking away, the pay phone rings (ominously as *69 hasn't caught on yet). The voice on the phone asks Samantha that he is in dire need of help immediately and would she meet him in front of the student center? She accepts to meet, but the voice no shows. Samantha meets her pretty, happy-go-lucky friend, Megan (Greta Gerwig) over pizza, who tells her to relax: all her financial worries will be taken care of. Samantha's despondent after the no-show by the voice but during the early evening, her roommate awakens and tells her that a guy called. A babysitter is still needed, for tonight, and will Samantha take the job? Yes, she will.
The voice on the phone is revealed to be the very tall, elderly, cane-bearing Mr. Ulman (Tom Noonan) who lives in a very large home out in the country with his wife, Mrs. Ulman (Mary Woronov). Mr. Ulman is as desperate as Samantha: tonight's a very important evening, a rare solar eclipse, and Mr. Ulman told a small fib: he doesn't have a child but an elderly mother. Please accept the job, Samantha, I'll give you an extra hundred, making two hundred. Fine, how about three hundred? Four hundred, says Samantha. Megan, who drove Samantha to the house, thinks the guy is a weirdo and splits, but Samantha is taking this job, despite her friend's attempts to dissuade her. It looks easy enough, since the old man and his wife are only going to be gone for a few hours with an infirm mother who needs little care. Good luck.
The House of the Devil moves at a very slow place: it begins at the early morning appointment with The Landlady and ends at the very end of the p.m. hours, near the end of the eclipse. The deliberate pacing of the film allows time to get to know Samantha and view her surroundings, but the pacing of the film also mimics the pacing of low-budget horror films of the late-70s and 80s, where a lack of money had to be stretched out with as many scenes as possible to fill ninety minutes. I immediately think of films such as those by John Carpenter, such as Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) and Halloween (1978). There are a litany of scenes of watching Jamie Lee Curtis's Laurie Strode walking around her neighborhood, either in the morning where she meets Tommy Wallace, with her friends after school, or during very late Halloween evening before the start of the final act. In fact, The House of the Devil is shot similarly to Carpenter: Carpenter is the king of classic compositions: close-ups, mediums, and wide static shots, occasionally punctuated by a smooth and following tracking shot. When Megan drives Samantha out to the house for her job, the scene is shot nearly identical to the scene in Halloween when Annie drives Laurie to her babysitting gig (a sequence which was filmed incidentally by Debra Hill as a pick-up shot, as Carpenter relates on my Criterion laserdisc commentary). Watching people walking and talking is not necessarily compelling cinema, but during that era, filler was necessary. West successfully channels that vibe. There are other nods to films of the period, such as Theodore Gershuny's Silent Night, Bloody Night (1974), starring a very young Mary Woronov. I'll stop before I geek out some more, as I loved this period of horror cinema.
What West excels at so well, however, is the sense of isolation through the absence of modern technology which creates the horrific and driving tension of The House of the Devil. West does it quite playfully: Samantha's only contact with the outside world from within the House (save running from the house to another location) is with a wall telephone: it's not a touch-tone phone but the slightly-slower rotary phone; and it has an extra-long cord, connecting the receiver to the headpiece (emphasizing the absence of the more convenient cordless remote phone). This phone is seemingly the only one in the house. When Megan leaves and drives away, Samantha cannot contact her while driving: no cellular phones, so Samantha has to wait for Megan to drive all the way home and check her answering machine for Samantha's messages. There is no internet or computer in the house's office but a pair of eyeglasses within the desk with lenses as thick as coke bottles. Samantha takes her time to explore all of the house, and West drops clues to the older couple's true identity and foreshadows the Satanic final act.
Finally, really the only way that the viewer would ever know that The House of the Devil was a horror film is by its title (which really, though, succinctly says everything about the film). The film belongs to that rare class of cult films which generations discovered usually on late-nite television, often on some local television station's "Horror Theatre," (which West also jokes on within House) and all alone sitting on the couch, the viewer was scared witless by the unsuspecting and unexpected horror (since it was probably the only thing worth watching on the four or five channels). With the advent of VHS and especially DVD, those now older viewers are feeling nostalgia for the cinema, and they're popping up on new formats. Those older viewers want to revisit and recreate that scary evening late at night on the couch. The House of the Devil is a new horror film, born from nostalgia from another generation and made with a lot of love. The House of the Devil won't appeal to all viewers, but for those from another generation, like myself who remembers scares from another era, will love it just as fondly. See it.

1 comment:

Mr.LargePackage said...

Great review, Hans. Your comparison of this film to Halloween and your annotations on technology in cinema were insightful, perceptive, and correct. This film was creative and nostalgic, which are both good things. That being said, I did not enjoy this film. I can appreciate the characterization, the low-budget feel, the ominous tone, and overall 80's magic. It just wasn't entertaining, scary, funny, or interesting. It was also historically incorrect. The house of the devil isn't in the woods outside a college town. His house is in Jackson, MS, four houses away from the Whataburger, next to I-55. His house has already been robbed 11 times and the police have no leads. And that is large and in charge.