Be cautious when visiting House of the Devil

| November 25, 2009
Jocelin Donahue in "The House of the Devil" - PHOTO BY GRAHAM REZNICK/ MAGNOLIA PICTURES

The House of the Devil opens Friday in select theaters

Oh my gosh, is this movie terrifying. I watched an advance DVD one night last week, all alone in my house. About midway through, I seriously considered turning it off. "Get a grip," I told myself, just as the heroine of the film in question, The House of the Devil, says to herself on several occasions. "It's just a movie," I reminded myself.

Well, yes and no. I'm no horror aficionado, largely because movies that truly scare me, like this effort from the young talent Ti West, really and truly scare me. Why would I want to volunteer for such an experience?

In the end, I didn't turn off the film, and I survived. But I was left marveling at how a well-wrought horror film can scrape the nerves of the most sensible people. The key to The House of the Devil, and indeed to many of the greats in the genre, from Nosferatu to Rosemary's Baby to The Blair Witch Project, is to milk our fear of the unknown. Dread, in other words. Much of the crap passing for horror today relies on a cynical use of shock edits and bullying sound cues to provoke audience reactions. These films assault us instead of inviting us to care about the characters enough to be afraid for them, and afraid of what we don't know is about to happen.

The House of the Devil is a refreshing departure from the torture porn and the Asian extremes. It's a throwback, really, an act of aesthetic conservatism that is signaled in the very first scene. As soon as we see the clothes of the two characters, the lighting and the use of rack focus, we realize that we're in the early 1980s. Clinching the suspicion is a cameo appearance by Dee Wallace, forever enshrined in our memories of that period for her roles in The Howling, E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, Cujo and others. The opening credits follow, which are a perfect facsimile of that period's typeface, and we follow Samantha (Jocelin Donahue), our heroine, in a series of freeze-frames as she walks across her college campus in Connecticut.

But this is no smirky Tarantino-style send-up. Instead, West, who was born in 1980, seems to be trying to make a 1982 film, right down to Samantha's Jaclyn Smith hair and the clothes of her friend Megan (Greta Gerwig)—her stone-washed jeans and three-quarter-sleeved, two-toned baseball undershirt—not to mention the soundtrack with songs by Greg Kihn and Thomas Dolby. Implicit in West's early-Reagan mise-en-scène, I suspect, is a dismissal of so much of the sound and fury of the more expensive, technically bloated horror films of recent years. He's going minimalist here, and to that end, his art department, led by Jade Healy, and his director of photography, Eliot Rockett, support him beautifully.

West's casting choices are strong, too, showing no interest in ingénues of the moment—although both young women are attractive as well as compelling: Donahue is a newcomer in her first lead role, while Gerwig is best known as a playwright, screenwriter and performer in films with Joe Swanberg and the Duplass brothers (Baghead, Nights and Weekends, Hannah Takes the Stairs). Veterans Tom Noonan, Mary Woronov and AJ Bowen round out the cast.

And what's the plot of The House of the Devil, anyway? Do you really need to ask? Samantha is a nice college girl who needs to make some extra money. She answers an ad for a babysitter and ends up going to a house out in the woods to take the job. The first act is very deliberate exposition, with not much happening until something does—a nasty, nasty surprise. Then there's a long, terrifying second act that's slow-burning, excruciating, turn-the-damn-thing-off suspense. Then there's the third act, of which I'll only say, "Have fun."

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