Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Now I understand why people get into murder vans: House of the Devil (2009)

Ti West's 1980s babysitter horror throwback House of the Devil is weird but strangely pleasant.

It first caught my attention because it looks like a love-letter to 80s horror, but that's a trick! There's nothing of the simplicity of those babysitter exploitation films here. This is a very modern horror movie all dressed up in costume to look like our rose-coloured nostalgia. It's not a tribute, it's a period piece. Everything about it feels exactly the way you remember 80s horror looking, but there were no actual movies like this in the 80s. House of the Devil is beautiful and measured, and it benefits from a more modern sensibility in camera work and especially in its pacing and attention to character.

I was drawn to The House of the Devil because the retro setting and look, but I loved it because it was so careful and subtle and effortlessly charming. Tom Noonan, in particular, demonstrates how creepy gentleness and kindness can be. He is soft spoken and humble even as he explains to the main character that she has been called out to this creepy house in the middle of nowhere to babysit a child that doesn't exist. There is no child. Instead, he explains, he needs someone to watch his grandmother. It is hard to not like him, despite knowing that this is a crazy suspicious thing that he's done. And that makes his kindness all the more creepy. You can't help but thinking oh shit, this is how serial killers get people into their creepy murder vans! They're super charming and you start thinking, "Oh just one look in the murder van will be okay. I don't want to let him down."

It's a slow movie, but it never drags. The main character is so likeable that it's nice to just spend time with her, to order pizza and dance around with walkman headphones on. And there is always just one more slightly off detail to promise that the end is coming. Ti West knows that anticipating violence is scarier than violence itself, but he also seems to understand that if you are going to be wandering around a spooky house for 90 minutes, then a) there better actually be something batshit crazy behind one of these doors at some point, and b) it is important to have a character who we want to wander around an empty house with. The main actor Jocelin Donahue conveys charm and intelligence in a role that requires very little speaking. It is never boring, following her as she tries to figure out what is going on.

And how can you not love a movie that sent out its review copies on VHS in a proper white plastic case and everything?


  1. We've rented this twice, and it is awesome. The first time we knew nothing about it, it just happened to be a horror film we'd never rented at the movie place. It's definitely one like The Innkeepers where you KNOW something horrible is going to happen to this really likeable main character, and the fact that horrible things keep NOT happening, just slightly odd things, makes the tension incredible. So that when her friend stops in the cemetery for a smoke, it really knocks you out of your seat. I felt like it was obvious where it's going (she's there to babysit, yet it turns out not to be a kid, there's a door she's not supposed to open), and yet I still felt totally blindsided by the cemetery scene and had no clue what would happen next. Definitely one of my favourite horror films I've seen recently.

  2. There's a payoff in The House of the Devil, if you have the patience. Some of the scenes seem draggy, but the characters are complex, and their motivations are explained.
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  3. The sudden climax is a gore-drenched bonanza of Satanic delirium that seems to be making up for the calm that came before, if not spoofing the very idea of cinematic payoff.

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