July 26, 2013

The House of the Devil (2009)

College student Samantha takes a last-minute babysitting job in an isolated manor house. Once she arrives, however, it becomes clear that things are not as they seem, and that her life may be in terrible danger. It sounds like an awfully generic storyline, and to be honest it kind of is, but the key to The House of the Devil is not its premise but rather its execution: this is a great horror movie.

It is written and directed by Ti West, whose follow-up The Innkeepers I reviewed last week. I enjoyed that film a lot, and it inspired me to track down this earlier work to see how it compared. I think I prefer The House of the Devil. Like The Innkeepers it is quite a slow-burn of a movie, but it burns just that little bit faster and overall feels just that little bit tighter. It's a nicely old-fashioned horror movie - while there are certainly moments of blood and gore, for the most part it's a deliberately restrained work. In an ocean of survival horror - Saw, Hostel, The Hills Have Eyes, et al - Ti West's work is a bit of an island of creeping menace and well-crafted suspense.

Jocelin Donahue is great as Samantha, the twentysomething babysitter left in a countryside mansion to watch over an elderly woman. Her character is utterly believable: she reacts in terror to things that would terrify ordinary people. She's as curious about the house she's in as anybody would be. She's a strong protagonist, and a visible and fortunate step up from the 'scream queen' stars of 1980s slasher films.

And I mention the 1980s deliberately, because this film is a deliberate and clear homage to the horror movies of the early 1980s. It is set in that period, with hairstyles and clothing designed to match. It is shot in a wonderfully retro style, with zooms replacing tracking shots and opening and closing credits right out of that time.

Greta Gerwig is very engaging as best friend Megan. She's not in the film that much, but has great chemistry with Donahue. Their conversations in the film's early scenes feel very natural, and this sort of banality serves to enhance the more horrific scenes that ensue. Also very good is Tom Noonan as the mysterious Mr Ulman, who hires Samantha in the first place.

Horror is such a wonderful genre for the low budget filmmaker, and so often in turns out that the best horror cinema you can find is not at the multiplex but on DVD and at film festivals, where talented young filmmakers are free to take risks, indulge in self-aware references and generally craft more artistic films. Now that I've seen two of his films (and his segment in V/H/S) it's clear that Ti West is a film director on which we should keep a trained eye: his work is the real deal.

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