The House Of The Devil (2009)
There’s nothing quite so disappointing as keeping your eye on an up-and-coming release because it looks like it’s ticking all the right boxes, only to find that it’s DOA. I’d been hearing good things about The House of the Devil, that it was going to be the kind of slow-burning psychological horror I enjoy, with plenty of suspense, dedicated to going back to “old school” horror values, all of which made my ears prick up. Then when I found out that it was to star the likes of Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov (the always watchable Dee Wallace is, sadly, only a cameo part), my hopes were well and truly up, and sad to say after finally watching it, they were briskly scuppered by the one thing missing: a decent script.
“Superficial” is probably the word that best describes The House of the Devil, for whilst the filmmakers clearly went out of their way to recreate the feeling of a film that might have been made in the 70′s (many people are referencing it as being more 80′s, but I didn’t feel this other than on the surface – for although the film is set in the early 80′s, and recreates the time period perfectly in terms of fashion etc., the filmmaking style and the story owes more of a debt to 70′s classics like When a Stranger Calls (1979) or Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974) and the gritty feel of Tobe Hooper‘s seminal The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), rather than anything post-1980), as commendable as that is I can’t help but feel that ultimately it was just window dressing, which may be visually interesting but doesn’t disguise the fact that inside the film is hollow. I hate to employ a phrase that’s become so overused of late, but the “Emperor’s new clothes” reference is certainly very apt here.
For when you scratch below the cinematography, directorial style and the set and wardrobe dressing, all of which are just a pretty-looking veneer, what’s lurking underneath is completely threadbare. As I have stated earlier, I am a fan of the slow-burning horror film – this is just slow, plain and simple. An hour passes and nothing happens, inexcusable for what’s essentially a set-up we’ve seen in a hundred other movies (babysitter in a creepy old house alone, unaware that bad stuff is happening elsewhere and coming her way), the director has no idea how to take this and make it tense, as in say John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978). We’re meant to be both creeped-out by Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov’s “odd couple” and yet unsure of what’s going on, but we’re neither, since what they’re up to has been telegraphed from the very first first frame of the movie when an opening text gives away the entire plot (and shows you just how thin and trite it is). The finale, when it finally comes, tries to pick up the pace but can’t escape the lethargy of the previous hour’s somnambulism, and furthermore it does so by becoming a lazy “final girl” scenario, one again that’s completely lacking in tension or suspense since it’s over as fast as a virgin’s first time. It’s just one cliché on top of another, smarmily trying to hide under the guise of “homage” and it just won’t wash. The biggest let down of all comes with the “twist”, which is is less a sting in the tail and more a flash in the pan – I don’t know what was worse, that it was such an overt rip-off of Rosemary’s Baby, or that it had been obvious that it was coming since that opening text an hour and a half earlier.
When it comes down to the nitty-gritty, The House of the Devil just doesn’t hold up to scrutiny, especially when compared to the movies that it’s paying homage to. The style of the piece and cinematography are impressive, as is the acting (Jocelin Donahue as the lead, Samantha, plays the role well and with sincerity, not to mention looks like Margot Kidder circa Black Christmas), but it’s all let down by a dull, trite, empty script which makes it feel like a student film that’s an exercise in recreating a period through camerawork and cinematography rather than being a full-blooded, functioning piece of cinema. It’s something that might have worked nicely as a short feature, but as a full-length picture is a disappointment.