The House of the Devil

The House of the Devil (2009) movie poster

(2009) dir. Ti West
viewed: 02/08/10

The House of the Devil is an intentional throw-back horror film, set in the early 1980’s and using credit titles meant to look as though it was actually produced back then.  It had gotten some decent reviews, so I was game to check it out.

Writer/director Ti West sets things slowly into motion, building time and place, and characters, namely the heroine, the very pretty (and very skinny) Jocelin Donahue as the college sophomore who wants to get out of her dorm room and into a nice private apartment.  She’s given some emotional depth, given time to brood upon.  And her best bud, played by Greta Gerwig, who had caught my eye in the “Mumblecore” film, Baghead (2008), here with feathered hair and a cute, semi-dipsy conviviality.

It’s a babysitting gig, on the night of a lunar eclipse, that you can guess from the title of the film, The House of the Devil, is either some Rosemary’s Baby (1968)-type of babysitting gig or something with pentagrams and human sacrifice.  It’s the latter.

Way out in the countryside, Gerwig drives Donahue to the house, but the whole thing is suspicious from the start.  The older couple say that it’s not really a child they want her to babysit, but an elderly mother, who will be no bother.  And when she’s offered $400 for one night’s worth of work, it wouldn’t take Nancy Drew to figure out that something was really fishy.

A term that I find myself using often in describing films that “try” to do something interesting, unique, different, but don’t seem to have all the necessary talents or elements in place is earnest.  There is an earnestness to this film, a real attempt to give some verity to the humanity of the characters and to try to pose the story like one that’s not just totally insane.  It also attempts to build drama and tension rather than pop up with lots of shocking nothings (“what was that that just ran past the camera too close to see, but with the wince of a violin?”) that you see all too friggin’ often.

But still, it doesn’t add up completely, certainly doesn’t become more than the sum of its parts, nor, I fear, will seem very memorable.  While its aesthetics seem to call toward The Last House on the Left (1972) or John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), the film lacks originiality.  Still, much more interesting, say, than all the re-makes of that period’s horror films.

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