The House Of The Devil (2009)

Directed By: Ti West
Written By: Ti West
Starring: Jocelin Donahue
  Tom Noonan
  Mary Woronov
  Greta Gerwig
The House Of The Devil

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.

Rating: ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆

7 Comments on “The House Of The Devil”

  1. Sarah Law says:

    Have you ever seen The Roost? I thought it was a nice little low budget horror flick and that Ti West showed real directorial promise. I’m sad to hear he hasn’t reached it with this. Unfortunately your review for this and the IMDb average score for Cabin Fever 2 seems to suggest that The Roost might have been a bit of a fluke.

    • Jamie Carruthers says:

      Cabin Fever 2 has been destroyed by the studio, Ti stated at Frightfest that he made it as a super gross gore comedy and the studio wanted something more in line with the previous movie. The studio got a new director in to shoot new scenes and re-edited everything. They then wouldn’t allow Ti to remove his name from the movie (he wanted a Rosderick Jaynes credit, which is cool).
      I caught up with him briefly after the Q&A for House Of The Devil and managed to squeeze in a quick question. I asked him if we would ever see Superman 2 style director’s cut. He said “Never ever, I want nothing to do with that fuckin’ movie”.

      In other news, with all due respect Aaron, I completely disagree. I thought HOTD was a mood piece, an excersize in atmospherics. The direction is incredible and authentic (as you say) from the title card right down to the looming house shots.
      It really worked for me because I knew what was going to happen, and it was just a case of waiting for that eventual pop up and kick out ending, watching the girl rifle through the belongings, we learn that she isn’t quite as innocent as she seems. I wouldn’t say it is a message movie but her motivations are entirely selfish throughout the movie and thats why she gets it.
      Knowing that it will all come to a head in true mid 70s style glory was just so satisfying and really wedged my jaw down.

      I will agree that casting Woronov and Noonan as the couple was a bit off, it would certainly would have benefited from a bit of restraint and less of the genre heroes.
      It was my favourite Frightfest flick this year, and I continue to dream about the original cut of CF2.

  2. admin says:

    *exercise

    Tut tut.

    ;)

  3. Aaron Gillott says:

    No worries, Jamie, I think this is one of those films that has the potential to be divisive and work for some and not for others – and let’s face it, part of the fun of doing this is because we’re all fans with our own views and tastes. :)

    I totally agree that the look and feel is excellent – in fact, I’d say it was even better at recreating that cinematic time period for horror/exploitation films than either of the double-bill that made up “Grindhouse”, it’s more authentic – I just didn’t really feel that the atmosphere was ever strong enough to pull me in, largely because I knew where it was going from the start and personally I find that loses my interest as I don’t feel any threat or tension if I’m already assured of the final result. I’d still be interested in seeing future projects by Ti West, though, as it’s an impressive feat in and of itself and it’s clear that as a director he has plenty of potential.

    @Sarah – I’ll keep an eye out for “The Roost” and take a look, sounds promising. But after hearing Jamie’s story about what’s happened with “Cabin Fever 2″, I’ll probably steer clear now as I have a distaste for when studios interfere, it very rarely ends in anything good. “Blade Runner” with the happy ending, anyone? :s

  4. Sarah Law says:

    I just saw this last night and could not agree more. I thought that the shooting style, acting and visuals were all pitch perfect with regard to re-creating that old school look so in that respect, it’s a win. As for the story, I literally nodded off for a couple of minutes about 45 minutes in because nothing had happened. I’m all for slow-burn movies but this was almost at a stand-still. I still think Ti West is a really promising director and I didn’t hate this, far from it, I just don’t think I’ll eve feel the need to watch it again.

    • Jamie Carruthers says:

      I still can’t get over this only getting four skulls, and as for you agreeing, you’re both wrong.

      I love this movie.

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