Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The House Of The Devil (2009)

It's some time in the early 80s. Financially desperate college student Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) stumbles upon a strangely lucrative baby sitting job for an even stranger couple, the Ulmans (Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov).

Only when Samantha arrives at the couple's house somewhere far outside the city she's studying in does Mr. Ulman explain that this isn't exactly a babysitting job, but that he and his wife want Samantha to watch over Mrs. Ulman's mother. Sam is not keen at all about that change of plans, and only when Ulman offers her a preposterous $400 for one night of work does she agree to do the job.

Ulman explains that Samantha probably won't even see the old woman, and that he only needs her to be there in case an undisclosed kind of emergency happens. Surely, this strange job won't have anything to do with the lunar eclipse that will happen this night?

Once she's alone, the young woman is getting increasingly tense. It takes some time, a bit too much of the unhealthy atmosphere of the house, and some hints at the fact that the Ulmans were lying to her, but after a while even Samantha begins to feel that the whole set-up just isn't right. Of course, at that point, it's already too late and Samantha's new career as victim of satanic rituals can begin.

Ti West's The House of the Devil is a full-blooded piece of retro cinema. Not satisfied with using elements of a certain subset of the satanic panic movies of the late 70s and early to mid-80s, and mixing them with modern ideas, West goes all out in pretending he is in fact making his film in the 80s (and alas, also in avoiding any new ideas getting into it). Film stock, camera angles, the faces of the actors, the music, even the titles, everything here is designed to emulate a very precisely defined group of grim, slow and suspenseful but not too gory horror films, and it's difficult to argue with the success of that part of West's effort.

Sure, the film might be a tad too slow - especially in its middle parts - for many contemporary viewers, but so were the films West is imitating here. However, the slowness, as well as the fact that the audience knows much earlier about the danger Samantha is in as she does herself, are the film's way of generating suspense without having to show much more than the increasingly nervous young woman in a creepy house. For my tastes, it works out fine, but not everyone who has seen the film seems to agree with me here. The word combination "slow and boring" is tossed about quite often by people talking about House of the Devil, and for once, I can understand where they are coming from. Not everybody is made for watching (creepy) bonsai trees grow.

My main problem with The House of the Devil has nothing whatsoever to do with its pacing or anything technical about it.

The problem is the strange lack of ambition beyond making a film that is exactly like some (well-loved, excellent) films made in an earlier era of the genre West's film shows, the spirit of imitation that is so strong West even consciously copies the flaws of those films. Of course, it beats making another remake of a well-loved film that doesn't understand the spirit of the original and doesn't have any ideas of its own worth a new film, but it only avoids the first of these problems.

It's a wonderful thing that West is inspired by parts of the horror genre that seem forgotten and ignored by too many directors working in the genre today and tries to use techniques that have gone out of style quite unjustly, but the product of the director's labours misses out on the next step: using the style and the techniques to make a film of his own, preferably a film of his own time that speaks to and about contemporary anxieties as the films of the 80s spoke about the anxieties of their times. There's no need to just repeat what the old movies said - they already said it, and they are still there to repeat what they said on the flick of a remote.

The House of the Devil is a great replica of great horror movies, and is certainly enjoyable and technically impressive, yet it's so caught up in its admiration of a different era that it's lacking a personality of its own. It's the "retro" dilemma in full effect.


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