Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Final Girl Film Club - The House of the Devil

Cody endures and enjoys slow burn horror.

Writer/director Ti West's The House of the Devil is a film that deeply appeals to me on many levels, but one which I can't revisit very often because so little happens in it. The majority of the running time just follows star Jocelin Donahue around as she does random and mundane things to get through her day, and that's not something I can sit through regularly. It's a movie I need to rewatch from time to time, though, because it is gorgeous to look at. At least for someone as enamored with the aesthetics of the '80s as I am.

The story is set sometime in the 1980s and the film was shot on 16mm to give the picture quality a period appropriate look. Almost bringing a period appropriate to the screen is pretty much everything about the movie, from clothes and hair styles to props.

The House of the Devil wins my heart as soon as the opening title sequence kicks in, credits appearing in a yellow font while wonderfully '80s, very Cars-sounding music by Mike Armstrong (the film's primary composer was Jeff Grace) plays on the soundtrack. The sequence simply shows simply shows college student Samantha (Donahue) walking back to campus from the apartment she has just agreed to rent from a landlady played by Dee Wallace, making a couple minute cameo. The sequence looks and sounds so '80s, it just fills me with joy.

It was shot in the 2000s, but this movie really looks like the '80s as I remember them from my childhood. When Samantha gets back to college, the location looks '80s, from the door knobs to the items in Samantha's dorm room. She has the VHS cabinet I used to have in my house! Then Samantha goes to a pizza place to meet her friend Megan, played by Greta Gerwig with awesome hair. The pizza place looks right, with those red booth seats and paper Coke cups that I associate with the '80s for some reason.

Samantha needs money to make the down payment on her new apartment, so she takes a babysitting job she saw advertised on the school bulletin board. On the night of a lunar eclipse, Megan drops Samantha off at a remote country home, where owners Mr. and Mrs. Ulman (Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov) reveal that the job doesn't require her to take care of a child, but rather to just hang out in the house for a few hours while they're away. Mrs. Ulman's mother is sleeping in her room upstairs, and most likely Samantha won't even see her.

It's once Samantha is left alone in the house, after Megan has an unforgettable interaction with a mysterious stranger (A.J. Bowen) who's lurking around, that the movie's rewatch value takes a hit. Samantha has a few hours to kill before the Ulmans return, and a substantial portion of the film's second half shows her killing those hours in any way she can. Wandering around the house, dancing to The Fixx (The Greg Kihn Band is also featured in the film - excellent music choices), sitting around and feeling bored. The camera even lingers outside the bathroom door while Samantha relieves herself. At this point the film stops pushing the '80s nostalgia buttons and starts feeling like any average dull night.

Because the second half slows things down so much, I feel that the movie peaks with the title sequence and the scene in the pizza place, but Donahue's screen presence continues to carry it on to the climax, when things get strange and twisted, horrific events coinciding with the lunar eclipse.

Text at the beginning of the movie says the story is based on "true unexplained events", but the only connection to the reality is the fact that it's set during a time when Satanic Panic could have led people to believe that something like this really happened.

The House of the Devil is a movie that I enjoy, regardless of any pacing issues, but if you felt the need to click it into 2x speed during times in that second half, I couldn't judge too harshly.

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