If 30 years ago cell-phones, and other plastic nuggets of the Information Age, happened to be as faceted in mainstream culture as they are nowadays, then surely the plots and twists of certain cult films would never have been conceived. This is especially true for movies in the horror genre, as they more often than not dependent on the helplessness and isolation of their characters. While today’s screenwriters struggle to work their way around the conveniences of modern technology, writer and director Ti West counters this challenge by setting his 2009 film “ The House of the Devil” directly in the 1980s, a simpler time when rotary phones and 8lb walk-mans were in vogue. But this movie isn’t all high-waisted jeans and Volvos- West makes a deliberate effort to recreate the exact same filming techniques often seen in horror films of the 1970s and ’80s, with results that put our current reliance on gadgets and gizmos to shame.
In a last-ditch effort to earn some much-needed cash, impoverished college student Samantha Hughes (Jocelin Donahue) responds to an advertisement for a babysitting job posted on her school’s bulletin board (a common contrivance used for public communication before the dawning of the Kijiji era). With only a mere telephone number to inform her of the advertiser’s identity (read: no possible way to Google-search a background check), she arrives at the house to find that this isn’t exactly the gig she had in mind, yet it may be too late for her to turn back.
Slow and Steady Wins the Race…
A prominent aspect of this film is its story’s seemingly monotonous pacing. The first two acts give way mainly to casual dialogue between Samantha and her best friend Megan (Greta Gerwig) as they mull over Samantha’s strained financial situation. It’s during this initial half of the film that West allows his audience to become comfortable with the dated imagery. Zoom-ins, voyeuristic angles, long takes, and even a gritty filter suggesting an original 35mm reel all serve to encapsulate a “Grindhouse” spirit. For those viewers used to the crisp feel of a digitally mastered movie, reconciling with these throwbacks may require a bit of patience. It doesn’t take long, however, to settle into the overall atmosphere and become swept away by its gradual creepiness.
Back to Basics…
Despite its fairly simplistic and predictable narrative, “The House of the Devil” is commendable for deriving scares from a plethora of beautifully complex shots highlighting the power of suggestion. The amount of time in which Samantha actually faces her demonic foes totals an approximate 15 minutes. Until then, watching her silhouette tiptoe about an otherwise un-extraordinary house is all it takes to conjure a strong sense of discomfort. Instead of the jump-scares, intense gore, jostles, bangs, and the basic sensual assault plaguing a number of recent Hollywood films, West’s style and direction insists that you remain glued to your seat and squirm through the delicious agony of horrifying anticipation and suspense.
One of the best qualities of this movie is its complete lack of CGI effects. In their absence, West manages to stay true to his homage while exposing audiences to the carefully plotted machinations of earlier modes of film making. This is not to say I am dissatisfied with all current scare tactics, but merely to point out how blessedly refreshing a touch of tradition can be. In a time of constant and perpetual technological advancement, it is likely many of us will sometimes forget how elementary human nature is. When all it really takes is low-lighting and a few unexplained thuds to produce scares, then why not use them in a movie? In fact, why not watch a few ’80s classics after watching “The House of the Devil?” The films of Dario Argento, John Carpenter, and Wes Craven would all make for an excellent watch, in which all the pre-CGI era techniques abound.
“The House of the Devil” can be a slow journey and there are a small number of holes in the logic of the plot. Nevertheless, the film is enjoyable and worth the watch. Even though the final destination of the story is foreseeable from the get-go, arriving there is certainly one Hell of a ride.
My Rating: 7.5/10