The House of the Devil is a masterpiece that cannot be improved upon. There, I said it. It's off my chest and now we all know exactly where I stand on Ti West's film. I'm not even sure where to begin and, honestly, I'm not even sure if I'm equipped to properly dissect the film. I do not have a rich knowledge base when it comes to the Satanic Panic films of the '70s and '80s, so I confess to be clueless as to all the of the minute influences West may have drawn from (intentionally or not). With that caveat in mind, I suppose the vintage aspect of the film is the first place we should start.
Re-creating the '80s...
Throwback films are a dime a dozen, but rarely are they this effective. More often than not the throwback film ends up being a, perhaps unintentional, spoof of the type of film it's paying tribute to. Take Grindhouse, for example. Again, I have no particular history with the grindhouse era of films and I've never spent any time on 42nd Street, but even I know that there's too much modernization to both Planet Terror and Death Proof for them to ever be confused for actual films from the '80s. I love the look of both films, but all the burn marks, water marks, and absurd attempts at digitally 'aging' the film do the exact opposite; they date it as product of its time, not of the time they wish it was from.
The House of the Devil, on the other hand, is such a chameleon of a film that it could easily be mistaken for a long lost title from '83. I may not be able to pinpoint all the little touches that Ti West put into his Satanic Panic camouflage, but that's also the biggest compliment you can pay its craftsmanship. It's the absence of blatant attempts at aging, of hokey prods at common nostalgia that make the film feel like its only print got lost on a ship in the Bermuda Triangle in 1983 and suddenly resurfaced for the first time in 2009. There are no egregious staples of the '80s in it; just the clothing, the attitudes, a Walkman and a few tunes. That's it. The House of the Devil is a masterclass in how to recreate a period on film.
And Speaking of the Tunes...
In less meditative hands, I would assume it would be tough to resist the urge to fill an '80s horror film with Top of the Pops hits that everyone can identify with, but that's not the route Ti West took. Instead he only picked a select few songs that embodied the '80s to speak for the entire time period. The effect is a wonderful sense of familiarity, but no "I remember what I was doing the summer XYZ was all over the radios". Plus, star Jocelin Donahue dancing around to The Fixx' "One Thing Leads to Another" is probably the most attractive film moment of 2009.
Beyond the infusion of New Wave Rock, The House of the Devil has got a tremendous original score; my favorite of the year, in fact. Jeff Grace's score starts off calm and soothing with a lot of synthesizer to it, but as the film progresses and Sam spends more and more time in the eponymous house, string instruments begin to haunt their way into the film. And as the total lunar eclipse draws closer and closer and the events of the film become more and more manic, the score takes on a chilling, dominating presence that rushes together faster and faster until it becomes the musical equivalent of dread circling the drain.
And Speaking of Circling the Drain...
The other fundamental component of The House of the Devil that could not be improved upon is the editing. People, myself included, tend to use the phrase "It's a slow burn" as a diplomatic way of saying, "It's kind of boring", but there's nothing boring about Ti West's brand of slow burn. I've seen the film three times now and I've found myself on edge each and every time thanks to the sense of purpose West gives every shot. The most mundane of moments are held onto, not to prolong a scare, but to give the audience hope.
There can be no hope, though. The title sees fit to that. We know what kind of movie we're watching and we know exactly where our gal Samantha is at, so we cling with baited breath to the slower moments of the film knowing that in all likelihood they are probably her last. But even beyond these precious, "slow burn" moments, when West lights that fuse in the film's climax, he lights it with a cursed fury.
When Sam blacks out and West cuts to the pounding strobe of the Devil's blood moon, followed by the flame and the bondage, I get a full body rush. From that moment on the editing is still measured, but the handheld camera and encircling of the score take over and the whole movie kicks into survival mode. It doesn't exactly keep me up at night once the credits are rolled, but at that point in the movie I am sold hook, line, and sinker and it's all terrifying. I'm victim to the Satanic Panic and I desperately wish Sam would just run out the front door instead of back up the stairs to hide. And don't even get me started on that damned Witch face...
I actually don't have too many pointed discussion questions, rather I'd simply like to know whether or not people agree with me. Not because I want people to agree with me, but because if they don't, I really want to know what fits their definition of Grade-A horror.
Is The House of the Devil a masterpiece?
Is there a better horror score of 2009?
Do you think it's boring?
What specific Satanic Panic films do you think The House of the Devil evokes?
What kind of gift do you bring to the baby shower of a comatose girl impregnated with Satan's blood moon child?