Chalk it up to personal preference, but modern horror is completely underwhelming. Sure, much of the moralty found in classics of the genre delves into the realm of extreme fundamentalism, but the best films sink into the slow and steady build to a level of chaos that is equal parts sensually visceral and psychologically disturbing. If a film leaves me questioning, “How could this happen?” then it’s typically hit it’s mark.
Modern horror, increasingly referred to as “nu-horror,” rarely touches upon these fundamentals. Instead, they substitute plot, tension, and character-development for senseless gore and violence. True, the house that Saw built harkens back to aspects of older gore-heavy classics like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but it sacrifices the macabre, the gothic Americana if you will, that somehow justified the gore. Even the remakes of these classics eschew substance over piles of defiled and carved-up bodies.Which is a long-winded way of getting to director Ti West‘s latest film, The House of the Devil.
A few days ago, a group of friends emailed me about a horror movie night they were planning. They’d compiled a short list of films to consider, and I added to their list. While it ran through the pre-requisite canon of horror, it still lacked anything recent worth watching. In hindsight, I should have included The Strangers, but spaced on it at the time.
Unable to attend, I found myself scrambling to work in some horror film viewing over the Halloween weekend. After re-watching The Gate on cable, I decided to crack open The House of the Devil, which is available in limited release and more interesting Video On Demand (Comcast, U-verse, and more).
West is gaining traction with his retro throwback style and approach, but to his credit the proclivity to homage never crosses into style over substance — think more Death Proof than Planet Terror here. He continues the trend with Devil, and never wavers throughout the film.
The plot is simple, a cash-strapped germaphobic college student named Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) dreams of moving out of her dorm room, which she shares with an oversexed slob. She’s found the perfect apartment, and happens upon an opportunity to get ahead financially when she answers a campus advertisement calling for a babysitter.
In a series of odd yet somehow explainable series of circumstances she is given the job by Mr. Ulman (Tom Noonan), and sets out to make four times the initial offer. There is, as expected, a catch. There is no baby to sit. Instead, Ulman weaves a yarn that somehow convinces Samantha to stick with the arrangement.
And here is where West has subtly turned the genre on its ear. Where classics of the genre turned hedonists into victims, West’s film subjects an ambitious young capitalist to the horrors of a Satanic cult. In fact, in her everyday life Samantha embodies the very traits that most traditional horror films re-enforce: abstinence from sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll (substituting 80s synth for headbanger metal).
Samantha’s night is spent doing the things you’d suspect from a typical good-natured college student. She finishes up some homework, listens to music in a contained way on her walkman, and watches some television. The only crime she’s guilty of is breaking a vase while dancing around the house, a plot point one would think would progress the violence, but serves to develop discovery instead.
To burn too deeply into the intricacies of the plot would do serious disservice to the film’s rising tension, and it is that very build that couples with the 80s style to create something truly special. Llakor over on the IMDb boards opened his review with this description:
If the producers of this film were smart, they would deny that Ti West wrote and directed this film and claim that it was a lost film of the early eighties that they found in a drawer at Paramount. Say a lost Tobe Hooper film that Tobe did right before doing Poltergeist. Something that Steven Spielberg bought to keep from competing with Poltergeist and shoved in a drawer somewhere.
Because it’s that good. The House of the Devil feels like it should have been released back in 1982, from the feathered hair of the leads, to the Walkman, to the music and sound, to the slow build of the suspense, to the vintage titles. It is even a mash-up of the late seventies obsessions with baby-sitters in peril (When a Stranger Calls) and satanism in the suburbs (The Omen). Most importantly, it has all the slow-burn intensity of the great horror films of that period.
West’s commitment to referencing the period is undeniable, but his deviations transcend the trappings of mere homage, and recall supernatural elements from the 70s, particularly Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby. Devil is a must watch for any horror fan, but be prepared for the slow build. It’s a stylistic choice that is absolutely necessary, but will likely greet viewers expecting nu-horror tropes with disappointment.
Incidentally, The House of the Devil is on the list of reviewable films for this week’s upcoming episode of “The Rotten Tomatoes Show” on Current. Review the film with a webcam here, and if picked they’ll pay you $100.