The House of the Devil

The ratio of build-up to payoff
Ti West
Jocelin Donahue, Tom Noonan, Greta Gerwig, Mary Woronov, AJ Bowen
The Setup: 
80s-style horror film about a girl who takes the wrong babysitting assignment.

Two people wrote me in the space of a week to recommend this, a new direct-to-DVD horror film that not only takes place in the 80s, but is styled like an 80s horror film. It is put out by Dark Sky Films, producers of such direct-to-DVD fare, and their need to sell their product caused them to put eight minutes of trailers before the film, and make it so that you cannot skip past them. You have to, at best, fast-forward through them, and I must confess, the first time I put this disc in, by the time I got through those trailers, I was so annoyed [and truth be told, the other Dark Sky films looked so dumb] that I took the disc out and decided to watch something else altogether.

So finally I got around to the film. It begins with a title, saying that during the 80s, over 70% of Americans believed in satanic cults. Then it says “Another 30% rationalized the lack of evidence to government cover-ups.” Okay, what does that mean? Are you saying that 100% of Americans believe in satanic cults, and 30% of that 100% think it's a cover-up? Or do you mean that 30% OF the 70% believe in cover-ups? That's some fuzzy math. Anyway, we end with a title saying that the following film is “based on true unexplained events.” I’m really even sure what that means either, but let’s not stress over it.

So we have a really nice opening shot using the zoom-in-pull-back effect as the camera slowly pans, and it looks really great. In fact, this turns out to be my favorite part of the movie. It focuses on Samantha, who is looking at a room for rent in a house. The landlady is played by Dee Wallace, and I have to say it’s nice to see her—I wish she was going to be in it more. The tone of the movie is making it out that Samantha is having bad feelings about the room, and since you know an outline of the story, you have to start assuming that Dee is the Satanist in question, but it turns out Sam’s misgivings are over money issues and Dee is never seen in the movie again. Anyway, Sam has the weekend to come up with $300, and she only has $84 in the bank.

We now have 80s-style credits with freeze-frames and 80s-style music playing, and we find that this was written, directed AND edited by a fellow named Ti West. By now we’ve also had cause to note that he has a nice compositional eye. Sam goes back to her dorm and can’t enter her room because her druggie roommate is screwing. She sees a flyer for a babysitting job, and calls on a pay phone. She leaves a message, and someone calls back on the phone. He says he’ll meet her, but fails to show. In the meantime, Sam pulls out her gargantuan walkman and jams to the tunes. You’ll note that the campus of her school is pretty much deserted.

She meets her friend Megan at the pizza parlor, where they discuss how Sam needs money, and they should go around campus taking down all the rest of the guys’ flyers are revenge for standing her up. Megan’s hair is feathered and she has 80s makeup, but there are anachronisms such as a car alarm, and phrases like “It’s genius” and “No more drama,” and for a while you start to wonder if they are purposeful or not. The problem with having an 80s replica film is that you spend a good amount of time thinking about the verisimilitude and not as much about the story. But that soon ends.

So there’s more filler, and eventually the guy calls back and Sam gets Megan to drive her out to the remote house. On the way, Megan reveals that she pulled down all the guy’s other flyers, and begs Sam to let her stay out there with her. They drive way out to this very remote house in the woods.

At the house they are greeted by Tom Noonan as Mr. Ulster, who is presented as several feet taller than both of them, a good, eerie effect. He appears to be a weak older man, and speaks with a soft, kind-but-halting voice, and I have to say he is far and away the best thing in the movie—I’m a real fan after this. He is genuinely creepy. He reveals to Samantha a) that Megan cannot stay, and b) it’s actually not a child she’ll be caring for, but his invalid mother. He offers her $400 for four hours work. By the way, this night is the night of a big lunar eclipse.

So she sends Megan home. Megan tells her she’s being really stupid, the situation is creepy and too good to be true. Megan leaves, whereupon she decides it might be a really good idea to pull into the creepy nearby cemetery to have a smoke. It makes perfect sense. She is surprised by a sudden—why, a sudden little cutie of a bear! Hey sweetie. He asks Megan if she’s the babysitter, and she says no, but she soon would have reason to rethink her answer.

If she still had a brain, that is! But now, now it’s in spattered all over the plush faux-leather interior. Meanwhile Sam meets Mrs. Ulster, played by Mary Woronov, and is left alone at 43 minutes—halfway through the film. She looks around the house. She tries to call Megan. She puts on music and dances. She feels creeped out. I start fast-forwarding.

I won’t go into what happens at the end, but since it’s on the outside of the box that the Ulster’s are Satanists and it’s the eclipse, I think you probably have an idea what you’re in for. There are a few surprises near the very end, but nothing that’ll blow you away.

The topic this movie [and the recent Shutter Island] puts one in mind of is the relationship between suspense and payoff. Because it seemed to me that the case here [AND in Shutter Island] is that the payoff does not justify all the build-up. Basically here you have 75 minutes of build-up and 15 minutes of horror, and that 15 minutes just isn’t interesting or surprising enough to justify the extended build-up. And it has the unfortunate effect of making you go back and say “Okay, all that was interesting character stuff, I suppose, but I really could have lived without it.” I watched a little of the DVD extra where the director talks about how he loves Polanski and other well-crafted suspense, so maybe the suspense itself is what he’s after. If so, I think it needs to be a lot better.

But what’s obvious is that Ti West is extremely talented. So talented, in fact, I don’t think he needs to mess around with making 80s replica movies, which will of necessity be a little diminished by being a replica, but is ready for theatrical release films. I think he should have someone look over his scripts first, however. Jocelin Donahue as Samantha was great, if seeming a tiny bit old for the role, and Greta Gerwig as Megan was also very good. But again, Tom Noonan ran off with the film, with his wonderfully menacing turn as Mr. Ulster. Yeah, so there you go. Amusing enough, as far as it went, but ultimately I think West’s obvious talents could be put toward something of a bit more substance.

Should you watch it: 

If you’re curious about it as an 80s replica, although I would skip it and just watch an 80s horror film.