Sunday, April 18, 2010

Ti West - The House of the Devil (2009)

While the maxim that there’s nothing new under the sun is subject to itself, nonetheless, the last decade has seemed especially blatant in its carbon-copy revivals of old genres (in music and cinema, especially). On the one hand, one doesn’t want to revile this trend, because, despite the fact that I sometimes think that the more obscure corners of a past genre provide endless avenues of exploration, there is a limit to that material – whereas genre revival not only provides more, particularly for those with less access to rare or out of circulation material (these days often related to at least a certain level of tech savvy), but also gives the opportunity to participate in the existence of the work as a contemporary moment, which has its own pleasures. But one does wonder whether there isn’t a certain sterility to the entire endeavour – why one would set out to create an artwork which is as close as possible to an already-existing moment.

On this note, The House of the Devil is a film which, down to the last detail, recreates the eighties horror genre film – and we’re talking here not about the eighties revival which revels in its own kitsch excess, but rather a muted version which seeks to emulate not how we now imagine the period, but a work which was actually created in the period itself. In this, it is extremely successful, and there is an appreciable pleasure to the high-waisted, college-town, synth-rocked environment in which the action plays out. The plot revolves around Samantha (Jocelin Donahue), a college student in need of some fast cash, and a babysitting assignment in a spooky house in the forest outside of town, which is by no means all that it seems. The plot is entirely unoriginal (the title says it all), and the pacing is uneven – a very slow tension build followed by a sudden and extreme climax which, without sufficient introduction, seems ridiculously over-the-top (and I make this criticism as someone who’s generally a fan of the slow and moody build in horror, as opposed to the ultragore-heaped-upon-gore strategy). The house itself, as a space, is perhaps the film’s greatest achievement – neither a classically ominous pile, nor the incongruously haunted modern edifice of films like Paranormal Activity. There are some very fun cameos by Mary Woronov as the creepy Mrs. Ulman, and Greta Gerwig as Samantha’s Valley Girl-esque friend Megan, who features in an unexpected moment of violence in what is perhaps the film’s most successful scene. Overall, however, the period atmosphere alone doesn’t carry the film, while the plot is too unoriginal and uneven to take up the slack – as my friend put it, this is perhaps a truer facsimile of the bad eighties horror movie than the director intended.

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