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John’s Horror Corner: The House of the Devil (2009), style trumps substance in Ti West’s delightfully atmospheric callback to 70s and 80s occult horror.

July 18, 2015

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MY CALL
:  Neither gory nor exhilarating, if you don’t like slow-burns then you definitely won’t like this.  However, if you’d enjoy a callback to atmospheric 70s-80s horror with a well-developed and endearing victim, then this is for you.   MORE MOVIES LIKE House of the Devil: Slow-burns like It Follows (2014), Session 9 (2001) and The Innkeepers (2012).

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This film has loads of different movie posters, many of which follow a more dated style.

“During the 1980s over 70% of American adults believed in the existence of abusive Satanic cults… Another 30% rationalized the lack of evidence due to government cover-ups… The following is based on true unexplained events.”

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From the opening shot director Ti West (The Sacrament, The Innkeepers, Cabin Fever 2) transports us to what feels like 1980, a time of payphones and public bulletin boards with thumb-tacked want-ads.  The score, film quality, wardrobe and even the credits simply ooze “VHS horror.”  The film doesn’t just “look” old, it “feels” old.  Like it’s been in a dusty box of tapes in a closet for the past 35 years.

As with It Follows (2014), we take our time getting to know and invest in our female lead, Samantha (Jocelin Donahue; Insidious Chapter 2).  Her hair and delicate features remind me of a young Margot Kidder (Black Christmas) and, thus, a good victim.  She rents a house from an all-too-kind landlord (cameo by Dee Wallace; The Howling, Cujo, Halloween) but desperately needs money to pay her rent.

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West gives us a lot of subtle hints, and then some unsubtle ones in the spirit of the more obvious horror of the 80s.  When Sam finds a “babysitter wanted” flyer, it’s surrounded by flyers/ads for watching the upcoming lunar eclipse.  Later the radio and TV news harbinger the ominous eclipse.  Add that to the babysitter trope, a house in the middle of nowhere and her friend (reluctant to leave Sam alone) finding the house and owner creepy and no one in the audience should have missed what’s going to happen.

The house is huge and remote.  Its owner (Tom Noonan; Wolfen, RoboCop 2) is weird but polite, speaking of preparation for the eclipse to a suspicious degree.  He clearly wants Sam alone in the house, protesting the presence of her friend.  When Sam hesitates the old man offers her $200, $300, then $400 to watch over the house for a few hours while he and his wife (Mary Woronov; Warlock, Chopping Mall) are out.  Sam’s friend says this is “too good to be true” and she should leave…she’s obviously right!

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There’s a lot of exposition but it’s delivered tactfully enough; like a subtle delivery of blatant content, which also holds for the scares and gore, when present (though rare and skewed to the end).

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The film moves at a slow pace and it tiptoes the line between slightly boring and provokingly interesting.  I don’t mind, though.  I’m digging the nostalgic atmosphere and West does a god job of getting us familiar with Samantha and her friend (Greta Gerwig).  Several scenes endear them to viewers, my favorite being Sam’s cute scene dancing around the creepy house listening to a Walkman.

The payoff in the end is nothing we haven’t seen before (many times, in fact, in 70s occult horror), but again, I don’t mind.  It’s creepy.  And even though we saw it coming and very little happens until the very end, I enjoyed this for what it was.  Honestly, I enjoyed the buildup in the first 60 minutes more than the payoff at the end.  Some may even argue that the final act does the film’s first hour no justice.  Despite this perhaps somewhat justified criticism, I felt the film was largely beautifully executed.

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West wisely cast aside the CGI, overblown gore for shock value, nudity and over-exposition.  He ignores the rules of modern horror success and contemporary tropes to instead resurrect the nigh-forgotten tropes of decades past as he breathes life into that 70s/80s style that never truly benefited from high production value back in its time.  In short, West has created a “classic horror” film for a modern audience that has lost its patience with dated films—and I applaud him for it!

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There’s actually nothing original at all in this film.  However, West’s careful approach restores my faith in an overplayed genre.

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Other actors to look for in this film: AJ Bowen (Chillerama, You’re Next, The Sacrament)

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