The House of the Devil

(2009) *** R
95 min. Magnet Releasing. Director: Ti West. Cast: Jocelin Donahue, Greta Gerwig, Tom Noonan, AJ Bowen, Danielle Noe.

/content/films/3683/1.jpgOne of the most blatant movie trends of the aughts has been horror remakes, with down-and-dirty R-rated shockers "reimagined"—sometimes with a PG-13 neutering—as smooth, colorful modern shlock (starring smooth, colorful twentysomethings), made for teens too young to have their own Netflix account. Conceptually, The House of the Devil is a direct rebuke to this trend. Writer/director/editor Ti West isn't just another film-school nerd/horror geek who's seen every slasher movie ever made and can't wait to homage it. He's a film-school nerd/horror geek who's seen every slasher movie ever made and can't wait to homage it with skills.

West's subtle recreation of a 1980s era horror film isn't packaged as some kind of "lost in the archives" joke; it's a meticulous and wholly convincing embrace of the early-'80s aesthetic that only seems Tarantinoid in its ripped-from-the-'80s yellow credits. So, yes, The House of the Devil could have been lost in the archives, so refreshingly out of step is it from the inane titillation of what passes today as horror movies. Shot on 16mm in eighteen days, West's film is smart and patient in its setup, which pits svelte college-age pizza eaters with feathered hair against an "abusive Satanic cult" (a shoe that West dangles in an opening title card and tantalizingly holds in the air for most of the running time before its inevitable drop). College sophomore Samantha Hughes (Jocelin Donahue) has just won over a landlord (Dee Wallace of The Hills Have Eyes) for an apartment the co-ed can hardly afford; in desperate need of money, Samantha eagerly answers a posting for babysitting the house of the devil!

Okay, she doesn't know that, and neither does her best friend Megan (Greta Gerwig), who offers her carless buddy a lift. Their nerves tingle at the quietly off-kilter manner of the man of the house, Mr. Ulman (Tom Noonan of Manhunter), who confesses that the job isn't quite what it seems. Still, Samantha needs the money and agrees to wait out the evening as Ulman and his missus (Mary Woronov of The Devil's Rejects) set out to enjoy a total lunar eclipse hyped as being best seen in this sleepy Connecticut town. Ominously, the rural mansion lies adjacent to a cemetery, and the tension is heightened with a simple period detail: in the absence of cell phones, the heroine is hopelessly dependent on pay phones and land lines when trouble inevitably arises.

The House of the Dead turns out to be easier to admire than to love, but it's still a discovery waiting to happen (as is its director). The acting is impeccable, even in the smallest of roles (dig the news team reporting on the eclipse), and the fetching Donahue is particularly impressive, commanding the screen for long stretches without dialogue. West employs witty touches like Mr. Ulman's plea when hiring Samantha ("I promise to make this as painless for you as possible") and the girl's later ill-advised Walkman jazzercise to the Fixx's "One Thing Leads to Another." The film's only flaw is that the payoff isn't commensurate with the build-up. The House of the Devil is diverting stuff, and a very impressive formal exercise in style and restraint, but in story terms it turns out to be little more than warmed-over Polanski. A bit more narrative juice in the late going, and West could well have excelled beyond his inspirations.

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Aspect ratios: 1.78:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, PCM 2.0

Street date: 2/2/2010

Distributor: MPI Media Group

MPI's Blu-ray disc of The House of the Devil is the best way to see this recent horror sleeper that's ripe for discovery on home video. Due to the 16mm source, film grain is prominent, as well it should be. The image doesn't have the sharpness and pop of most HD titles, but the disc is wholly faithful to West's intentions to recreate the sights and sounds of a cheaply produced early-'80s horror film. In the same way, the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and PCM 2.0 mixes don't measure up to most modern soundtracks, but they're not meant to...they likewise contribute to West's overall scheme to evoke a decades-old style. As such, they are expert in their conveyance of the pastiche score and subtle ambience that defines most of the picture.

The disc includes a thoughtful and wide-ranging commentary with writer/director Ti West and Jocelin Donahue, as well as a more rollicking, fun-loving commentary with West, sound designer Graham Resnik, and producers Larry Fessenden and Peter Phok.

Video-based extras include the "Trailer" (2:08, SD) and three "Deleted Scenes" (6:42).

"In The House of the Devil" (13:34, SD) consists of raw B-roll shot on the set; it's a revealing look at the behind-the-camera work that the engrossing film it birthed never once betrays.

"Behind The House of the Devil" (4:40, HD) is a brief featurette that includes interview clips of West, Donahue, AJ Bowen, Mary Woronov, Greta Gerwig, and Tom Noonan.

One hopes The House of the Devil will find the audience it deserves on home video. Surely it will find contemporary cult status. Just as West is likely bound for bigger things, this feature is bound to grow in stature.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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