Hey, it’s not a perfect film. I didn’t quite believe that the heroine would do what she does at the film’s climax, and it thrills through its familiarity and its reconstruction of older films rather than through innovative, self-made scares, but it delivers exactly what it promises: a retro tribute to a certain era of American horror cinema where terrible things befell nice, pretty college students. Jocelin Donahue is Samantha, strapped for cash and persuaded, against her better judgement, to accept a baby-sitting assignment from a couple in a big old spooky house and, of course, it turns out to be a bad decision. To say any more would be telling. So, as part of a new series of short, accentuate-the-positive posts, I thought I’d praise the good points of whatever pops into my DVD tray every now and then. Here are the things I like about The House of the Devil, with spoilers studiously avoided:
- The retro poster campaign (see above). I feel like I know every piece of each of them (there are some Amityville horrors in there, and that’s Wes Craven’s Deadly Friend top right), even if I’m not enough of a genre specialist to be able to place them.
- It knows that the first thing anybody faced with a harpsichord in a creepy old house would do is play a bit of ‘Heart and Soul’.
- Greta Gerwig, the talisman of American Indie Authenticity, plays the sassy, slobby sidekick. It’s a P.J. Soles tribute act. There’s a long scene where, left alone in a stranger’s house, she tucks into a bowl of boiled sweets. It has nothing to do with the plot: it’s just a character note, but it points up how sensitively West creates tension through focusing on slightly “off” performances or tangential activities that could be the calm before a storm, or a genuine red herring.
- Its minimalism – there only half a dozen speaking parts here, and a large portion of the film is taken up with a girl alone in a house, entertaining herself and trying to ignore the strange noises. It creates a chilling sense of isolation and vulnerability, all the while building up the sense of something sinister occurring in the silent spaces off-screen.
- It takes thirty-seven minutes before anything nasty happens. And when it comes, it’s genuinely sudden and shocking. You have to admire a film that bides its time and doesn’t give up the goods immediately just to cater to viewers with limited powers of concentration.
- Even though it’s a standard-issue haunted house, it still gets a legitimate creepy atmosphere out of prolonged silences, shadows and the simple existence of a basement. Remember when you were young and having a house to yourself was both an exciting opportunity and a slightly uneasy feeling of vulnerability and irrational fears? So does this film.
- Jocelin Donahue’s extraordinary bone structure and feathered hair. Don’t ask me how, but the girl can evoke 1983 with just her cheekbones. As with the posters, I have a feeling she reminds me of someone in particular, but I can’t quite place it. Karen Allen?…
- Are you making a horror movie set in an old empty house? Do you need a scene that explores that setting and shows where everything is, perhaps showing a lighter side to your otherwise reserved and quiet protagonist? Maybe with a bit of nostalgic period detail for good measure? I suggest you follow Ti West’s lead and insert a sequence where your heroine loads a cassette (remember those?!) into her big-ass Walkman (yeah, I had one of those!) and dances around the place, doing that hoppity, aerobics-video dance that lets her bounce from room to room, doing that hey-I’m-just-checking-what’s-in-the-fridge-oh-nothing-much action before pogoing on an armchair, hopping up the stairs, and generally announcing by asymmetric means that the long-awaited horrors are about to commence.