Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The House of the Devil

If any of you should ever wonder why Hollywood makes so much terrible garbage every year, I have a fine example for you from the world of horror. Here is The House of the Devil, which in my own opinion is the greatest, scariest horror movie of the past few years. There’s so much tension in this film that even a jaded asshole like myself was actually getting a little scared by it, and it made a whopping $100,000 in theaters before dropping onto DVD with a soft thud. Its big competitor at the time was Saw 6, which had a plot so easy to follow that someone on IMDB needed to write a thousand word essay just to explain the ending. It made $27 million, or roughly 270 times House of the Devil's take. The upcoming Saw 7 is in 3-D, so we can safely assume it will make twice that. Also, I hear the traps come alive!
Anyway, the film is meant more to evoke the creeping terror of horror films of the 70s rather than the more present-day torture porns and DTV slasher rehashes, and opens with some great fake statistics about how in the early 1980s, over 70% of American adults believed in the existence of evil Satanic cults, while an additional 30% believing the lack of evidence was due to a government cover-up. With that astonishing figure of over 100% established, we follow the story of Samantha (Jocelin Donahue), a poor college student hoping to make some quick money so that she can move into a new apartment next week, and who manages (after some initial incredibly shady difficulties) to get hired as a babysitter for an evening. Her best friend Megan (Greta Gerwig) demands to accompany her there, and extracts a promise that if the job appears suspicious (or really, more suspicious than it already has) then they can bail. Unfortunately, despite the job becoming shadier by the minute once they arrive there, their host Mr. Ulman (Tom Noonan) offers up far too much money for Sam to pass up for just one night’s work, and she sends her friend home, a decision both girls would soon regret.

Yeah, there’s not a great deal of plot to the film, but it more than earns what surprises it has, so I’m not going to spoil any of them here. I suppose it’s become a bit clear over the past couple of weeks that I tend to prefer when my horror movies focus on suspense and mood rather than gore and jump scares, and while this film has its fair share of the latter, the bulk of the film is devoted to tension and the growing anticipation of whatever horrible event is soon going to happen. It’s a film of rare subtlety, as when she’s exploring the house and sees a painting of four cowboys on horseback, one of whom rides a pale horse. Put that in almost any other horror movie made in the last decade and the director would have nervously cut to the inscribed title “FOUR HORSEMEN” for fear that his audience wouldn’t have understood it.

While most movies tend to at least try to be laden with emotion, horror movies tend to be almost entirely based around the emotional response elicited from the audience. While this tends to mean that the plots of these films are allowed to be somewhat more simplistic than in more mainstream genres, a good deal of the time that’s unfortunately taken to mean that they’re allowed to be completely idiotic as long as people get carved up in them. It’s the sort of mindset that has led to the creation of Platinum Dunes and their endless parade of dull remakes (most recently the dreadful remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street). Fortunately, this film manages to do it the right way. While it keeps the plot fairly simple, it never actually insults our intelligence, the characters behave like the rational, smart people they’re intended to be, and at no point does the movie ever run the risk of grinding to a halt unless a character magically turns into an idiot so that the plot can continue. It doesn’t hurt that the house is creepy as all hell, either.

I haven’t seen any of writer-director Ti West’s other films like The Roost or Cabin Fever 2, but I’ve been told I’m not missing anything. That’s a shame, because he clearly shows here that he has the ability to make a classic horror movie when he really wants. Hopefully his upcoming film The Innkeepers will be able to capture the same magic this one did, as I would hate for him to fizzle out with just one really great movie under his belt.

Rating: ****

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