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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan

"HOUSE OF THE DEVIL"


Jocelin Donahue gets (literally) the babysitting job from Hell in director Ti West's The House of the Devil.
 
The House of the Devil has been generating some pretty strong internet buzz leading up to its release. It's a throwback to the type of horror pictures that were made in the 70's and early 80's (before Jason Voorhees made slashing the predominant cinematic sport). "Rebooting" fright flicks of that era is all the rage right now, but director Ti West isn't interested in merely remaking a known property; instead, he tells an original story that just happens to adopt that exploitation style.

Set in the 1980's, this is the story of Sam (Jocelin Donahue), a college student looking to move out of the dorms and into her own apartment. To do this, she needs money, of which there is none. Sam sees a flyer on a campus bulletin board seeking babysitting services. She applies, and arranges for a meeting with her potential employers. They are Mr. and Mrs. Ulman (Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov), an eccentric older couple. Actually, Mr. Ulman is more than eccentric - he's a bit creepy, albeit in a very polite and mannered way. He tells Sam that they do not actually have a child, but rather an aging mother upstairs who needs to be looked after. For $400, all she has to do is be in the house in case of an emergency while the Ulmans go out on the night of a lunar eclipse. Sam agrees, and ends up having a (literally) hellish evening.

The House of the Devil is a great example of what I call a "slow burn" horror movie. What I mean is that very little happens overtly in the first hour and then, in the final half hour, everything happens. There is literally a big chunk of the film where Sam just wanders through the Ulmans' massive Victorian home. She goes from room to room, flips on lights, eats some pizza in the kitchen, shoots some pool on their billiard table, etc. When I watch slow burn horror movies at home, I often end up fast-forwarding through them, because watching someone meander around is perhaps even less exciting than watching paint dry.

I didn't get bored this time, though, since West does a terrific job of planting the seed of discomfort in our minds. The early scenes effectively create a sense that something is massively off-kilter. We therefore know Sam is in deep trouble, but we don't know what specifically that trouble will be or when it will arise. The interview Mr. Ulman conducts with Sam is weird and awkward and borderline inappropriate - like and episode of "The Office" played for scares rather than laughs. My attention was held because I became nervous for Sam. I knew she was in for something terrible - and she seems to know it deep down too, yet the prospect of quick cash lures her onward.

Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov are smart actors. They know that, when playing villains, sometimes being subtle is more effective than being overt. These are not mustache-twirling baddies here. The stars play Mr. and Mrs. Ulman as people who contain their evil beneath a shell of normalcy. In other words, they don't telegraph their evil. It's something that is sensed, rather than observed. Again, it's why I got hooked even when very little was happening plot-wise. Sam being trapped in the home of these nutjobs is more frightening because they try so hard to hold in their darkest impulses, like a spider luring a fly into its web.

You may notice that I have not indicated anything about the horror in this horror movie. That is to preserve the suspense. The title gives you a clue. The third act of The House of the Devil plunges into genuinely nightmarish territory. A few things that happen are shocking in their implications and/or suddenness. The ending may leave some viewers scratching their heads. You definitely have to think about it a little bit, but once you get what's going on, it really is unsettling. Let's just say that the payoff is earned by the set-up.

Ti West gives his film the look and atmosphere of those old exploitation flicks, from the freeze-frame opening credits to the moody lighting and the deliberate pacing. He does not call attention to this homage in an obvious way, like Grindhouse or House of 1000 Corpses did. West merely borrows the style, to very effective use. The House of the Devil won't likely appeal to the Saw crowd, who demand that someone be butchered every ten minutes. However, if you like horror movies that actually have some artistic merit to them, this is definitely one of the more noteworthy pictures of the year.

( out of four)


House of the Devil is rated R for some bloody violence. The running time is 1 hour and 33 minutes.

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