Saturday, February 20, 2010

On DVD: "The House of the Devil"

Homage isn’t enough, and Ti West knows it. His film The House of the Devil, which is slowly accumulating a fierce cult following, is a purposeful and skillful throwback to the horror films of the early 1980s, and it gets the look and feel of those pictures just right—from the specific color saturation to the lighting to the costumes and props, it looks like it’s been hidden away in a vault for thirty years.

But that alone doesn’t make it a good movie. What West understands (and what the makers of other less-successful tributes like Black Dynamite don’t) is that recreating production style and quoting old genres is enough to last the length an internet clip or a comedy sketch, but if you’re going to sustain a feature-length narrative, a film has to work on its own terms, within that framework. Yes, it’s cool that House of the Devil looks like something you would’ve taped off Cinemax at four in the morning in 1983. But it also would have been the best horror movie of 1983.

The plot is classic babysitter-in-peril, crossed with a healthy dose of Rosemary’s Baby, and like the better horror films of the period (such as the original Halloween and Texas Chainsaw Massacre), it’s a bit of a slow-burn—less kill, kill, kill than build, build, build. The performances, from gifted unknowns Jocelin Donahue and Greta Gerwig to cult standbys Tom Noonan, Mary Woronov, and Dee Wallace, are just right (i.e, natural but not showy). Writer/director West doesn’t get carried away with the 80s camp; the only potentially cutesy scene, of our heroine dancing around the house while rocking out to the Fixx’s “One Thing Leads to Another,” is played with such a likability and wonderful energy that it transcends kitsch.

All that is just the run-up to the intense, brutal pay-off—bloody, tight, and frightening, this is an ending that doesn’t fuck around. The House of the Devil is skillful and scary, and (like the Grindhouse movies), it’s not only an affectionate tribute, but a worthwhile addition to the canon it loves.

"The House of the Devil" is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.

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