Thursday, April 01, 2010

Movie of the Day: The House of the Devil

As a child that was too nervous and squeamish to watch scary movies, it wasn't until the early 90s that I began to develop a taste and tolerance for horror movies. Most of this expansion of attitude can be credited to numerous sleepovers with a group of cousins who had HBO. Through the magic of pay-cable I first ventured into the world of R rated monster movies, starting with A Nightmare on Elm Street 4. My cousins, knowing of my squeamishness, assured me that it was funny, and had more in common with a scary adventure film than a true horror film. And they were correct. Or, they were at least correct in the assumption that once I relaxed and sat down to enjoy the film, I found I was pretty much entertained throughout. I also watched Nightbreed during one of these sleepovers, and while Nightmare 4 showed me that horror movies didn't have to be as imposing as I'd built them up in my mind, Nightbreed more than anything else changed how I perceived horror films. Instead of seeing them as just terrifying nightmare inducers, I began to see the beauty and romance in horror(which of course is a recurring theme in every Clive Barker story).

Owing to the time period in which I began experiencing horror movies, I obviously saw a lot from the 80s, and a fair amount of them were of course slasher films. But slasher films have never been my favorite subgenre. Unless the film has something special to recommend it(Halloween's Hitchcockian suspense, Nightmare's decidedly supernatural surrealism), I find nothing more boring than a horror movie about some crazy dude slicing up coeds. Slasher films are generally nothing more than murder and nudity delivery devices, and that's usually all they aspire to. That's fine, and I admit I've enjoyed some of them from time to time, but I can find nudity and clever death scenes in movies that have plot and originality, also. So although I am not necessarily the target audience for Ti West's nostalgia tinged 'House of the Devil', I nevertheless found myself sucked into it's pervasive creepiness.

'The House of the Devil' is a slasher film aimed straight at those people who grew up watching Halloween, Sleepaway Camp, or Friday the 13th, but without the post-modern irony of Scream, Cabin Fever, or even Rob Zombie's wholehearted odes to late 70s sleaze. In 'House', the details are key, from the book-sized walkman to the feathered hair. From the font of the opening credits to the ever-so-slightly grainy film stock, giving the movie a visual depth that few films these days attain. 'House of the Devil' is a love letter to the bottom of the horror barrel, but it's treated with the care and reverence of a Hitchcock film, making it more in line with John Carpenter's Halloween than the slew of lesser slasher films.

The House of the Devil spends the majority of it's running time doing nothing much at all. From the very beginning it's obvious that something is wrong and bad things are coming, and there's an early shock that puts the stakes into sharp focus, but most of the time we're just following a babysitter wandering around a large, possibly empty house; ordering pizza, watching TV, peaking into cupboards and closed bedrooms. This will very possibly bore many people, especially when they realize the scares aren't exactly forthcoming. Me? I found it deliciously nerve-wracking, and strangely inviting. 'House' attains a tactile presence that I found strangely inviting; it portrayed a world I would love to live in(of course, without the bloody satanic sacrifices. Or possibly with them, depending on which side of that equation I ended up on). The film hit that sweet spot of haunting creepiness, the suggestion of something terrifying without blatantly hitting you over the head with it. So it was a bit of a letdown when the finale of the film fell in line with what I usually expect from a slasher film. To be fair, most critics found the final 20 minutes relentlessly terrifying, but I found it overwrought and too on the nose, where the rest of the film had been all about subtlety and suggestion. Still, that's pretty much what you have to do when you make a movie in this mold.

Rating: 4 out of 5. I originally rated this a notch lower, because the ending left a bad taste in my mouth, but that first hour or so is really something fantastic.

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