THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL (2009)
Writer/director/editor Ti West's horror flick THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL is a slow, brooding and atmospheric exercise in retro horror, never succumbing to post-modern genre tropes like subversion or updating of material. The film is a refreshingly old-fashioned homage, and unlike the work of contemporary retro-shocker Eli Roth, it lacks entirely the irony and self-referentialism most post-SCREAM horror flicks, and it packs in a ton of aesthetic flourishes that would have felt right at home three decades ago. On top of the fact that it looks, feels and even behaves like an early-80s occult horror film, it also manages to be pretty damned good, delivering heavy atmospheric chills and a late-in-the-film freak-out that's quite memorable, and it does so with very little gory, although when the blood does flow, there's plenty of it.
Delivering a knockout debut performance, Jocelin Donahue plays Samantha, a struggling young college student who hopes to move out of the dorm room she shares with her highly sexually active and somewhat slovenly roommate and into a place of her own. In pursuit of this dream, she takes a babysitting job from the Ulman family, a strange clan that lives in the country outside of the college town Samantha is familiar with, despite the protestations of her friend Megan, played by current indie darling Greta Gerwig.
From the start, West demonstrates an economy of storytelling, cramming a lot of character and background information into a very brief period of time. Within the first twenty minutes, we have fully established relationships, fears and motivations, and a good deal of creepy dealings with Mr. Ulman on the telephone that get the proceedings going pretty quickly. And once our heroine is on her way into the woods and unfamiliar territory, the film slowly ramps up the atmosphere, the house itself becomes as much a character as Sarah or Mr. Ulman - a labyrinth of locked doors and strange noises emanating from the bedroom of Mrs. Ulman's mother, the actual subject of Sarah's babysitting job.
Tom Noonan plays the odd and off-putting Mr. Ulman, a tall, lanky man who easily sends the creepy vibe to Samantha, Megan and to the audience while remaining subtle and mysterious. The latter is no easy feat in today's over saturated genre films that feature over-the-top performances on part of the villains. After he successfully recruits Samantha for the job, and has left with his wife for the evening, we are left alone in the big house - empty except for the sickly and supposedly bed-ridden mother, and a whole lot of strange going on.
The house itself - and the secrets that we are given snippets of that Samantha has no awareness of (like the slain family that lies behind a locked door upstairs and the grisly death of her friend Megan) - ratchets up the tension notch by notch toward a horrific climax that shares a place in film history with the overlooked road movie/Satanic horror hybrid RACE WITH THE DEVIL and the (after-)birth scene in ROSEMARY'S BABY for sheer ballsiness of content. It turns out that everything is definitely not what it seems, especially Mrs. Ulman's elderly mother, and Sarah is in great danger because it's the night of the lunar eclipse. And we all know what happens with Satanic cults and eclipses.
The film opens with the statement that the 1980s was a period of widespread belief in the existence of Satanic cults, and proceeds with one of the best title sequences in recent memory, with retro typeface and freeze frames. It feels a lot like a Craig Brewer sequence, actually, which may or may not be a reason I enjoyed it so much. But, unlike a lot of badly put-together titles, it gets the period, tone and character established, and there's not a stupid newspaper clipping in sight to make sure the audience knows what's going on in the world of disappearings or kidnappings or any other such B.S. the studios usually cram into these bits. I have a soft spot for this sort of film, sure, but I do think it's worthwhile, and while not for everyone, it's definitely interesting, and may be a flick that even non-genre fans can get into.