THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL
Starring Jocelin Donahue, Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov
Written and directed by Ti West
Dark Sky Films/MPI in America, E1 Entertainment in Canada
Samantha (Jocelin Donahue), bloodied but not beaten
The praise being shovelled by critics upon director Ti West’s ‘80s-influenced The House of the Devil is understandable. It’s a well-acted, beautifully-designed creepshow which doesn’t let its low budget get in the way of creating a plausibly dread-filled atmosphere or characters with which we can empathize. Too bad all that love is in service to an undercooked script in which, in the end, not much actually happens.
Director Ti West
The Burrowers’ Jocelin Donahue stars as Samantha, a college student who needs to make some money quickly to pay the deposit on her new apartment. (Her landlady is played by genre vet Dee Wallace.) So she answers a babysitting ad put up around her campus by the odd Mr. Ulman (Tom Noonan: Manhunter). Her best friend Megan (Greta Gerwig: Baghead) warns her off the strange-sounding job but drives her out to the Ulman’s isolated country house all the same. But it turns out that Samantha will actually be “babysitting” Mr. Ulman’s mother, albeit just until midnight. Suitably disturbed by her prospective employer’s lie, Samantha calms her worries by extorting Mr. and Mrs. Ulman (Mary Woronov) for more money. They hastily agree (they need to get to their lunar eclipse event – hint, hint), and Samantha is left alone in their creepy house with midnight – and, of course, Satanic rituals – approaching.
Greta Gerwig as Megan
Ti West’s love for horror is evident. House is set in the early ‘80s and lovingly (slavishly?) recreates that era’s cinematic look and feel, down to Megan’s feathered hair and the credit fonts. Too bad all that effort is in service to a weak story. That the Ulmans are Satanists is giving nothing away, and with that fact established pretty early on, the rest of film’s arc becomes obvious. So Samantha spends much of the movie creeping around the Ulman’s large house, slowly realizing that something is wrong, and we spend much of the film’s 95-minute running time wondering if anything’s going to happen. As to the blood-drenched climax, it’s curiously anti-climactic, with the final sting’s nod to Rosemary’s Baby not exactly unexpected.
Donahue makes a good heroine; she screams well and her interactions with her co-star Gerwig are genuine and funny. We want her to survive. Somewhat wasted is Noonan. Whether or not West wrote the Mr. Ulman part as menacing, Noonan, so blandly menacing as the Tooth Fairy in Michael Mann’s Manhunter, plays him as oddly sympathetic, especially for a supposedly evil Satanist!
Tom Noonan as Mr. Ulman
All that written, The House of the Devil is worth the horror community’s support, mostly because West should be encouraged in his work. His talent is obvious, and we’re sure he’s got a truly great horror show in him. So watch House, preferably in a darkened room, cuddled up with someone you love or lust, especially if they are easily scared.
The House of the Devil is out today, Feb. 2, through E1 Entertainment in Canada and Dark Sky Films/MPI in the States.