Thursday, February 17, 2011

The House of the Devil: Something Evil, Seen Imperfectly

As I'm writing this, I'm listening to the album Opus Eponymous by the band Ghost. They're a contemporary group, but with a vintage "devil's music" schtick - their sound is vintage Blue Öyster Cult and Black Sabbath, their cover art is something you might see on a Hammer movie poster, and they wear hooded robes on a stage wreathed in smoke and candlelight. It's just this side of cheesy, and not my usual fare, but there's something about the combination of late 60s/early 70s hard rock and theatrical mysticism that appeals to me. It's a combination of things intended to evoke a particular era in music and the culture, and it captures a very specific aesthetic very well.

In some ways, it's the perfect soundtrack to The House of the Devil.

What we're talking about here is a pretty faithful modern attempt at an early 80s horror film, let's get that out of the way right off the bat. From the title card suggesting that what we're about to see is based on actual events, to the freeze-framed credits with static titles, to the diffusely lurid title of the movie itself, to the orange foam earphone covers on the Walkman headphones, to the expertly feathered wings of the protagonist's friend, it's pretty damn period-correct. This illusion of a movie out of time is disrupted only by the sort of minutiae noticed primarily by people who really, really need a hobby, and a lone car alarm early on announcing modernity like the dude who came into the theater late and won't just sit the fuck down.

So aesthetically, it's an 80s horror movie. It's also nominally a horror movie about the 80s, playing on the "satanic panic" that had parents wondering if things like heavy metal and Dungeons & Dragons were gateways for devil worship. Satanists! In YOUR community! That sort of thing. It's an honest homage to an aesthetic and a time in our culture without being too cutesy or smirky-ironic about it. Nobody calls attention to the 80s-ness of it all, that's just how it is.

The House of the Devil
opens with a slow, menacing zoom from behind on a young woman who is looking out of a window. She turns around not to scream or reveal some horribly mangled visage, but to tell a prospective landlady that she loves the place and will take it. The young woman is a college student named Samantha, and as we see shortly after the opening, she's delighted to get her own apartment for good reason - her dorm roommate is a slob who spends most of her time having noisy sex with her boyfriend. The only problem is that she needs $300 for the first month's rent, and she has maybe $85 in her checking account. The rent is due by next Monday. What is Samantha to do?

Oh hey, there's a notice on one of the campus bulletin boards offering a babysitting job for the weekend. It's easy money, what could be bad?

Well, how about getting the job from Mr. Ulman - an older man whose entire demeanor screams "I AM MADE ENTIRELY OUT OF RED FLAGS AND WARNING SIGNS" to start? And did he mention that she won't be babysitting a child, but rather his elderly mother? And that it's worth up to $400 to him for her to do so? And that mother's actually quite spry, but she's very paranoid and is not to be disturbed? And he has a wife who looks like Norma Desmond's younger, creepier sister?

And that this is all happening during a full lunar eclipse?

What could be bad?

We know almost right away that the babysitting job is bad news - it'd be bad news even if this weren't a horror movie, because Mr. Ulman is in speech and mannerism awkward, evasive, and just, well, the words "bodies" and "crawlspace" come to mind. He's the guy in the van with the candy. It doesn't require horror-movie logic to see the bad idea here. Even Samantha and her friend Megan see it to some extent, but Samantha needs the money and what are the odds it'll really be bad? Megan agrees to come back at midnight to pick her up. Until then, all Samantha has to do is pass the time. It's an exercise in watching the victim sit unawares as the monster slowly sneaks up behind them.

So yes, we know right away the babysitting job is bad news, but the movie makes a point of slow-playing the horrible inevitable for a really, really long time. It's a movie of quiet (very little music except at strategic points) in a mostly-dark old house. It feels like being in a strange person's home late at night feels. It's the disquiet of a familiar context (a home) in an unfamiliar form (not your home). All of the little shadows and quirks you ignore in your own house become menacing. Only in this instance, it's even worse than you imagine.  Little things start to add up (or not add up) - why are there a bunch of photos of another family posing in front of the house? Why are they in a trash bag in an upstairs closet? Why isn't Megan returning her calls? Why is there a bunch of hair in the bathtub? Why is she feeling…so…sleepy?

It's a really slow burn (very little resembling "action" occurs until about a third of the way in), but once it lights up, it burns bright and hot, rushing chaotically to a very still, clean, quiet conclusion. This is absolutely fine - it's incredibly refreshing in contrast to frenetic editing intended to stimulate anxiety instead of being actually scary (I'm looking at you, The Sick House), but problematically, the movie tends more toward slow than burn - although the lack of music makes what little there is effective (in one sequence, Samantha dances around the house to "One Thing Leads To Another" by the Fixx, and it's claustrophobic instead of fun, like you want to tell her to take the headphones off because she isn't safe), there are a couple of moments where brief music stings might have actually helped make a revelation stand out as being important. I'm not usually a fan of music telegraphing the scary bits, but here the absence of it keeps some small details from standing out like they should to be effective. Part of sustaining rising tension without action is slowly ratcheting everything up, here the tension tends to dissipate.

Likewise, the visuals can be problematic as well as effective - the house is old and not very well-lit, so much of the action takes place in a tangle of light and shadows. This is mostly cool and atmospheric, but in at least one case a very important detail is difficult to take in because of the poor lighting and not enough time spent holding the shot. The meaning of what we've seen is lost because it's gone too quickly and its lighting and location in the frame leaves us struggling to figure out what we just saw. It's the perfect place for a period-appropriate fast zoom and a music sting, but again, the moment trails away. 

The climax suffers from similar problems, though less so - it's for the most part really intense and old-school scary - but once the shock of what's happening passes, the ensuing action feels slightly dislocated in time and space, like we're not watching everything come to a head (as it should be) as much as a bunch of stuff happening all at once. It's not nearly as problematic in the end as in other parts of the movie, but again, it tries too hard to keep from being over-the-top. I admire the filmmaker's restraint and their success at creating both a historical mood and an atmosphere of dread, but I would have liked some old-fashioned shock, too. A little lurid and over-the-top, like hooded robes and fog machines, goes a long way toward evoking an atmosphere.

IMDB entry
Purchase from Amazon
Available on Netflix


  1. Absolutely spot-on, as usual.

    I loved this film, but found the ending frustrating--i wish the 'twist' were less than extremely predictable (I'm sure Ghost appreciated it). I appreciate a filmmaker bringing back the zoom function--i miss it.

    Also, the use of "One Thing Leads To Another" is, perhaps, my favorite use of licensed music in a horror film. Lyrically, filmically, aesthetically 100% on track. Inspired.

    Once the Ghost record runs out, put on The Devil's Blood EP--It's a great shot-and-chaser playlist.

  2. I didn't mind the twist, it felt like the chorus to a favorite song you haven't heard in years. As much as I usually like restraint, I was really hoping for a little more freak-out, especially once things started going wrong.