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Fantastic Fest Review: The House of the Devil

By  · Published on October 8th, 2009

Ten years ago, a movie came out that traded on the idea that found footage of some people wandering around the forest looking for a witch could be frightening because of how real it seemed. With The House of the Devil, audiences will once again be reminded of innovation in horror. Innovation comes directly from the past. Plus, they’ll also be reminded of how awesome owning a Walkman was.

Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) is desperate for money to get out of her sex-addicted-slob-roomate-infested dorm room and into a great apartment, so she takes on a babysitting job with a strange family on the night of a full lunar eclipse.

There is one major way that this film works and another one in which it fails.

First off, if House of the Devil was put in a stack of horror flicks from 1979–1984, no one on the planet would ever realize it was made thirty years after the fact. What Ti West has achieved here as a director is creating a movie that’s not an homage – it’s a full on re-creation of the style, tone and story of the horror world of the early 80s that blends satanism and a nation’s deep concern for its babysitters.

Somehow, they even found a lead actress who looks like she popped right out of the era in Jocelin Donahue. She’s a beautiful girl next door who does a fantastic job of creating a character that’s sweet and innocent but still burdened by youthful self-centering. Plus, anyone who can hold her own against the creepy genius of Tom Noonan (and he’s just as creepy as he needs to be in this) has clearly got talent. Speaking of which, how Tom Noonan finds new ways to be creepy is beyond me. Seriously. I feel sorry for his children.

However, beyond being a first (as far as I know) culturally, the movie isn’t all that great.

I fully recognize that I’m not a huge fan of the genre in the first place, so emulating it isn’t exactly a formula for success in my eyes. The problem with it, and with House of the Devil, is that it’s mostly pedestrian stuff leading to a pay off that’s just not enough. The bulk of the film is Samantha walking around, especially the first hour or so which consists of Samantha being hired for the job and little else. Why it takes this long to get someone into the house, why it takes that long to get from the first act to the second, is beyond me.

Even once inside the house, the tone isn’t as tense as it needed to be, but it’s passable. Her encounter with Noonan’s Mr. Ulman makes skin crawl even faster when aided by her encounter with Mary Woronov’s Mrs. Ulman. The two are a perfect duet of subdued villainy. But then we get right back into watching Samantha turn on the television, turn off the television, order a pizza, wander around the house, and basically wait for the full moon and the action to arrive.

This wouldn’t be such a bad problem if the pay off was as shocking as it could have been, but over all the time invested watching A Day in the Life of Samantha doesn’t yield dividends. It’s not that the ending isn’t frightening or shocking (and I imagine it was even worse in the early 1980s), but it’s just not frightening or shocking enough. Especially for a modern audience that isn’t watching news stories constantly about Satan worshipers living next door.

As a piece of nostalgia come to life in modern times, it’s an incredible feat, an achievement that’s laudable. But the genre it’s flat out aping isn’t a great genre to begin with, featuring more filler than killer, and House of the Devil suffers because of that fanatical adherence to one of the blander section of the rental aisle.

The Upside: Good acting, Tom Noonan, and an achievement that hasn’t been done before.

The Downside: A huge first act where nothing happens and a pay off that’s good but isn’t enough.

On the Side: The film was shot on 16mm to achieve the retro look.

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