Welcome to HorrorFest 2009.
Ti West has been building a reputation among horror fans as an expert in the art of the slow burn, and more power to him for exhibiting something that seems to be increasingly rare in filmmakers in any genre: patience.
"The House Of The Devil" is currently available via VOD, and on Halloween, there will be a limited theatrical run as well. I think Magnolia is on the cutting-edge of distribution models right now, and if you want to know what the future of distribution looks like, don't look to the studios... look to Magnolia/Magnet and the way they have all but collapsed the typical windows of the past. I saw the film at Fantastic Fest, and I thought it was a smart, slight, stylish film that plays some clever riffs off the "Satanic Panic" phase of the early '80s, paying tribute to '80s horror without being a broad, obvious exercise in nostalgia, which is what I was sort of afraid it might be.
If you weren't alive in the early '80s, you probably don't remember how much the mainstream media played up the idea of Satanic cults and human sacrifice. Geraldo Rivera, for example, built much of his early success out of the exploitation of this sort of paranoia, and even then, I was amazed at how easily people swallowed such obvious nonsense. Still, it crept into mainstream culture in such a pervasive way that even now, there are people who believe that there really were a rash of Satan-worship murders back then, and Ti West obviously remembers that moment with unabashed fondness. His film, a period piece that never winks at the audience about when it's set, doesn't just recreate the era onscreen. It actually feels like a film that was made in the '80s that just got lost somehow and rediscovered now. There's an authenticity to the filmstock, to the visual zoom-friendly vocabulary of the piece, and West plays it all so straight, so sincerely, that I stopped thinking about it at a certain point.
Jocelin Donahue plays Samantha, a college student who is tired of her living arrangements in the dorms. Her roommate's sex life plays havoc with Samantha's schedule, and she just wants to find a place to live where she can study and focus on her future. When she finds what seems like the perfect apartment, she's frustrated because she can't come up with the $300 she needs to move in, and she starts to suspect that she's never going to be able to come up with the movie.
And then she sees an ad: "Babysitter wanted."
Has there ever been a profession in film as maligned and constantly under assault as the poor babysitter? All they want to do is make a little cash and take care of some kids, and yet they constantly find themselves having to deal with boogeymen or werewolves or serial killers or, in this case, Tom Noonan. And really, is there anything scarier than Tom freakin' Noonan? I don't think so. As Mr. Ulman, Noonan tells Samantha that he's in a jam since the girl they had hired as a babysitter has become unavailable at the last minute. It's the night of a major eclipse, and Mr. Ulman and his wife (played by the equally creepy Mary Woronov) have an engagement. Samantha agrees to take the job at the last minute, even after an early misunderstanding with Ulman and then catching him in an outright lie. Her best friend Megan (Greta Gerwig, rocking a Farrah Fawcett flip) wants her to turn the job down, and at first, Samantha's leaning towards agreeing with her. Then Ulman ups the offer to $400 cash, and Samantha's resistance crumbles.
What follows is a very slow burn, and for some, the ending will not justify that ride, but I don't think it's all about the payoff. For me, what distinguishes "The House Of The Devil" is the way West milks every moment for suspense, the way he makes something as simple as walking down a hallway scary because of the context. He punctuates the film with a few key explosions of violence, but for the most part, everything's just a long fuse, burning down, with Jocelin Donahue front and center. That's a good thing, too, because she's a real find. Lanky and pretty in the same quiet, coltish way that Karen Allen was in her early films, Donahue doesn't play this with a post-ironic distance. She doesn't spend time talking about the rules of horror films only to break them. She's just a girl who lucks into a too-good-to-be-true job at the exact right moment, and tries to make the best of a very strange situation.
The film has a strong undercurrent of the same creeping dread that makes "Race With The Devil" work, where everyone onscreen becomes suspect simply because of potential. AJ Bowen plays a pizza delivery guy who may or may not be connected to the Ulmans, and he's got one of the best moments in the film, with a line that will be the most oft-repeated from the film. I think the people who dig this particular type of delayed gratification are going to embrace "The House Of The Devil" wholeheartedly, and I hope it turns into a springboard for Ti West to even bigger things. I'm so glad this happened when it did so that the fiasco of "Cabin Fever 2" doesn't derail his career. He's shown real promise up till now, and I still think what we're seeing is warm-up for something bigger. In the meantime, I appreciate the sensibilities on display, and I love that people can still get excited by something as deliberate and delicate as this one.
HorrorFest 2009 runs every day of October 2009.
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