Sunday, May 28, 2017

House of the Devil

The House of the Devil (2009)

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So a few months ago Zack (@Lightisfading on twitter) lent me a stack of Ti West movies to watch. So far I watched In a Valley of Violence like a month ago, and I watched this movie today. House of the Devil is about a college student (Jocelin Donahue) who takes a babysitting job from an eccentric older couple (Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov) and ends up being a human sacrifice in a Satanic ritual.

It's set sometime in the 1980s, which normally would bug the shit out of me - one of my biggest pet peeves about modern horror is how trendy it is to set things back then. There's no specific reason why this irks me so except that, you know, things are happening now so why not dig into that. However, this movie actually makes a point for being set during that time by mentioning that in the '70s a lot of people were really worried about Satanic cults. Nowadays the thought of Satan-worshipers being even remotely frightening is laughable, but this movie manages to dispel my dislike of new retro horror and modern Satanism in one sweep of historical context.

The other thing about this movie's setting is that it doesn't just say "okay this movie is set in nineteen-eighty-whatever", it goes all the way to make a movie that looks and feels like it was made in nineteen-eighty-whatever. From the grainy film quality, to the title sequence, to the way the shots are set up, to the score, it all feels like a movie that my dad had on the top shelf of his VHS wall. The main actress, Jocelin Donahue, looks like she wouldn't have been out of place in a Dario Argento movie or one of the Friday the 13th sequels, and even the way that the plot is structured feels like a film of that era.

Thus, regardless of whatever I think of the movie as a movie, it's impressive as a well-researched history project and noteworthy for that merit alone.

It's also impressive that they managed to dredge Tom Noonan (i.e., the Toothfairy from Manhunter, which we reviewed on the podcast here) and Mary Woronov (who was in, like, all the Roger Corman movies but I remember her best from Death Race 2000) up out of the pre-grave for this movie, both of whom gave great performances. Tom Noonan goes for a creepy yet strangely charming vibe, while Mary Woronov is weird and terrifying. Both are highlights of the movie despite only being in it for a combined twenty minutes tops.

The movie is set up to follow all the beats of a classic horror flick, lulling me into a false sense of security and then taking sudden detours from the formula which are refreshingly startling. For example (this whole next paragraph is a spoiler so skip if you wish), the main character's friend (Greta Gerwig) seems like she's probably going to be a pretty important character but instead gets an unexpected murderin'. Since a lot of horror movies these days are just entrail-festooned murder orgies that have me almost completely desensitized to any sort of human-on-human violence, the fact that an onscreen death in a horror movie was actually shocking to me is worth mentioning.

Furthermore, the characters have the common sense to use fucking guns. I don't know how many movies I've watched where I thought "jesus christ, why don't these fucking murder jockeys just have guns and shoot their victims". Well in this movie they do, and the plot still functions. No more excuses, other movies.

When the movie does finally get to the Satanic stuff (which takes over an hour to get to), it's pretty fucking weird so props there. They've got some weird ass witch fuckin demon thing, which I guess was the mother that the girl was supposed to be looking after, and a goat skull and shit, so that was legit. Even for a person such as me, who thinks that Satan worship is fucking stupid, it was weird enough that it was unsettling.

This fuckin thing. What the fuck is this fuckin thing? Image source.

I have two qualms with this movie. The first is that it takes for-fucking-ever for anything to happen. I'm not joking, there's twenty minutes of set up to establish that the main character needs money before she even really gets to talk to Tom Noonan over the phone. And like, okay, the character is likable, and I get that this movie is only ninety-five minutes long so they had to pad it out a bit, but still. It makes the movie seem less like it was made to tell a story and more like it was made to say they made a movie in the same style as an old movie, which totally took me out of the mood.

The second qualm is really going out on a limb but bear with me while I explain this shit. So, there's a big long stretch of the movie where the only thing that really happens is the character calls and orders a pizza. The number for the pizza place, and money to buy the pizza, was given to her by Tom Noonan before he left for the evening. So she calls the pizza place and the guy on the phone says "it'll be 30 minutes". It then takes thirty minutes of real time (not time in the movie, actual time) for the pizza to get there which really built a lot of tension. I was sitting there thinking, when the fuck is this pizza going to get here? Did they forget about her? Did something happen to the delivery guy? Did something happen to the pizza?!

Anyway, the pizza finally gets delivered by the creepy couple's adult son (A.J. Bowen) and comes with a serving of roofies, eventually causing the main character to pass out so the movie can get into high gear.

Because ordering a pizza was the only thing that happened for a pretty long chunk of film, it made me really pay attention to that one thing, coz obviously the movie was telling me that that was important. And it is, actually, it is important. Coz like, suppose Tom Noonan had been like "here's some pizza money" and Jocelin Donahue was like "thanks" but then later it turned out she was on a diet and brought her own chicken and rice with her and didn't order the pizza, then the Satan family's entire plan is fucked. What was their back up plan if she just didn't order a pizza? Or if she did order a pizza but too late so the roofies wearing off didn't coincide with the lunar eclipse (which gets mentioned like three times but is somehow not as important as this pizza).

So, okay, let's say she doesn't order the pizza, that seems a little implausible if somebody is offering you free pizza, but she also had pizza for lunch so fuck maybe she was pizza-ed out. Would that mean the Satanists would have to just come back and overpower her the old fashioned way? I mean, there were four of them and one of her so it probably wouldn't be difficult. If they could do that why go to the trouble of leaving the son's phone number and money under the assumption that she would probably order a pizza, then when she did order a pizza, the son would have to go to an actual pizza place, buy a pizza, drug it, and then bring it to the house. That just seems like so much fucking work, and leaving a shitload up to chance.

I really feel like it would have made a lot more sense for those people to just wait for her friend to leave, then come back and grab her. Like, they know she doesn't have a car too, so it's not like she can really get away. Or is it really important to Satan that his victims be terrorized and fed pizza for an hour and a half before being offered up as an unholy vessel? Since that was never mentioned in this movie, or anywhere else, I'm going to assume no and that the reason was that they needed to make the movie ninety five minutes.

All in all, though, my weird nitpicking aside, this movie is a very well crafted horror flick that goes beyond just an homage to horror greats. Sure, if you're really into film history you'll probably get a lot out of this, but even if you just like horror movies that are more atmosphere than gore, then this is a movie for you. Even though the weird logic gaps really stood out to me, this is still the kind of horror movie I would like to see a whole lot more of.

- Tom Noonan, Mary Woronov, and Dee Wallace appear in this film (+3)
- A gun is used, three times (+3)
- The house is gorgeous oh my god I want to live in it (+1)
- Weird-ass ritual (+1)
- Eye pokin' action (+1)
Total: (+9)

- Movie is set in the '80s. Penalty reduced because of sound reasoning, and commitment to aesthetic (-0.334)
- Lunar eclipse mentioned three times by three different characters just to make sure you know it's important, but ends up being less important than the pizza (-3)
Total: (-3.334)
Final Score: 5.666 stars

Written and Directed by: Ti West.  Starring: Jocelin Donahue, Tom Noonan, Mary Woronov, A.J. Bowen, Greta Gerwig.

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