Thursday, October 9, 2014

Riske Business: Why You Should Watch The House of the Devil This Month

by Adam Riske
The House of the Devil exemplifies everything I love about modern independent horror.

It was five years ago, but I still vividly remember the night I first saw The House of the Devil. I was having a restless night and began watching the movie on Video On Demand (VOD) around 3am. For the next 95 minutes, I was entranced. The movie truly cast a spell on me. I even remember pausing the movie because I couldn’t believe how much The House of the Devil was working for me. I had found not only my favorite movie of 2009, but also the next great horror movie that I am always chasing, especially in October.

The next morning I went to a local horror convention called Flashback Weekend and I wanted to talk to everyone about The House of the Devil. Luckily Dark Sky Films, the company behind the movie, had a booth at the con, so I was able to go to them to gush over their movie and inquire about when it would be available on Blu-ray. They seemed flattered and I was on cloud nine. I was not only at an awesome horror convention (I met Lance Henriksen and we talked about tattoos), but was also riding the high of seeing some great horror the night before. This was surely one of the best days of my life as a horror fan.
But enough about me, let’s talk about the movie. I enjoy honing in on a movie’s themes and I’m taken by horror, in part, because the genre rather persuasively examines morality and cautionary tales. The House of the Devil is a prime example of that. It is a movie about how financial desperation can lead us into making bad decisions. In the movie, Samantha (played by the fantastic Jocelin Donahue) has a dorm roommate from hell and all she wants in order to find a little bit of happiness is to secure enough money for first month’s rent of a one-bedroom apartment. The movie is so brutal because she pays an enormous price at the end for such a small request.

The movie personally affected me as well. I have many friends, but I would also consider myself to be a bit of a loner and I got that same impression from the Samantha character in The House of the Devil. This made me align my sympathies that much more to her. She’s a lonely-looking girl, overcome by her financial struggles so much that she panics and makes a delusional decision to take on a babysitter assignment that is too good to be true. Therein lies the cautionary tale aspect.

The House of the Devil is a character study, which is my favorite type of horror. The one in this movie is rich. I give so much credit to Jocelin Donahue for her work in this movie. It’s the Cast Away of horror performances. She has to single-handedly carry the movie (while not doing much in a way that’s showy), hold the screen and drive the plot. Especially with the type of slow-burn horror that the writer-director-editor Ti West specializes in, you need a strong focal point to keep your interest from trailing off. Donahue is always interesting despite never seeming to be doing a whole lot. This is an example of great casting, because the movie depends on the audience being on Samantha’s side and Donahue’s performance is so innocent, vulnerable and helpless that we can’t help but watch with unease as we know she’s entering essentially her own hell on earth.
Ti West also does something of a masterstroke by giving Donahue what I call “the babysitter dance” halfway through the movie. Just as we have become hypnotized by the deliberate pacing of the movie, it breaks out into a two minute dance sequence with Samantha bouncing about the house listening to The Fixx’s “One Thing Leads to Another.”



The scene is so great because it’s a release for the audience, momentarily relieving the tension. It’s silly. It’s the type of thing you do when you are by yourself and bored and the scene captures that perfectly. Plus, dancing on screen makes for interesting cinema. It’s fun to watch. You may not remember anything else from the movie, but I doubt you will forget the babysitter dance once you’ve seen The House of the Devil.

Ti West has cited Roman Polanski as an influence on the late '70s-early-'80s aesthetic he was looking to replicate for The House of the Devil. While I certainly see that (it owes a great deal to Repulsion), I think it’s actually more of a modern day Val Lewton movie. First you start with a exploitative title, The House of the Devil, and instead of making a movie that deals in special effects or crazy makeup (save for a “holy shit” moment with a demon reveal at the movie’s climax), you make a movie that is smart and subtle and built around character. Like Lewton with his classics such as I Walked with a Zombie and Cat People, Ti West is elevating the horror genre with his work on the seemingly pulpy The House of the Devil. Also resembling Lewton movies, West’s movies have an underlying sadness to them that make them stick to me like glue. I love both filmmakers; they are respectful of the audience’s intelligence and also aware of the emotional center of each of their movies.
The technical aspects of The House of the Devil are worth noting as well. There is true authorship with this movie. The mood is sad and foreboding, all the way down to Jeff Grace’s elegant piano riffs in the movie’s score. The style and atmosphere of the movie is stately, with picturesque production design in Connecticut homes and campuses shot in 16mm to approximate 1983. The camera is used in many shots to make our heroine look small and overwhelmed visually. The shot that comes to mind is a zoom out of the house where we see Samantha through a top floor window, looking outside, where to the audience’s point of view she resembles a person trapped in a maze. The pacing is slow, enhancing the dread, tension and menace and, most importantly, there is no winking going on here between the filmmaker and the audience. The movie is completely and refreshingly earnest.
One more reason to love The House of the Devil is because without it we would never have gotten The Innkeepers. A bit of movie trivia: the cast and crew of The House of the Devil stayed at the Yankee Pedlar hotel in Torrington, CT while shooting. The hotel was known to be haunted, which provided inspiration for West to go back and shoot his next horror movie there. There are slight nods in The Innkeepers to the production of The House of the Devil, including the Kelly McGillis character that at one point carries a crystal and holds it on a string over a book. This is something that Dee Wallace did on the set of The House of the Devil because the spiritual Wallace believed that the hotel was haunted.

The House of the Devil is not only a movie I enjoy, but an important horror movie to me in its own right. Before I gave it a look, I was a bit of a movie snob, never giving a chance to direct-to-video (DTV) or VOD movies (especially horror) because I considered them to be second-class citizens. I rationalized that if they were any good, they would be released in the theaters. The reason I made the exception for The House of the Devil was because I knew it was going to be playing the Music Box in a month so I considered it to be of a certain quality that I, at the time, demanded. After being blown away by the movie, I began to actually seek out DTV and VOD movies because I figured if my favorite movie of an entire year could be from VOD, then there’s a good chance many other great movies could be found via this avenue. I have not looked back since. I’m at the point where usually a third to half of my favorites movies each year debut via VOD.


The House of the Devil is one of my favorite horror movies and one that I will revisit each Scary Movie Month. You should check it out.


15 comments:

  1. This is definitely on my list for the month! Now that I know it has Adam's seal of approval, I may just shoot it up to the top of the list. The last movie recommendation I got from you (Big Fan) did not disappoint, and I have a feeling this won't, either.

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    1. In Riske I trust. That was fan-fucking-tastic. I don't even mind that the movie takes so long to really kick into high gear, because I find Jocelin Donahue, who I now love after this, so enjoyable to watch in the meantime. That, combined with the fact that I have found this year that I love a good haunted house movie, and this one is a real winner. It's another one of my favorite discoveries of the month. Thank you for another great recommendation, Adam!

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  2. This was a fantastic article, Riske! I loved "House of the Devil" but everyone who I have spoken with about it either thought it was "whatever" or didn't like it at all. It's refreshing to know that someone else out there feels the same. I also feel the same about "The Innkeepers" and get the same reaction from others. I think it has something to do with how immediate everything is now with Twitter and all that. Slowing down and getting that slow burn is a craft not utilized enough these days and instead replaced with fake "jump scares" and torture porn. That being said, I feel a revival coming on and am feeling excited with the latest crop of Directors leading the charge.

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  3. Yes! Couldn't agree more, Adam. I can't remember how but I'm pretty sure House of the Devil is another amazing movie I credit Patrickortreat Bromley for bringing to my attention. I didn't even realize I was such a fan of slow-burn horror until I watched and loved The Innkeepers and then HotD - which at first I thought was slightly inferior but now I'd have a pretty hard time picking my favourite. Jocelin Donahue (and the Babysitter Dance - good call) might give HotD the edge!

    Thanks for the reminder, Adam, I still haven't unpacked my movie collection and I might have forgot to revisit this again this SMM - it might not grab everyone the same way it grabs us but I hope people give it a shot!

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  4. Ti West is my favorite horror filmmaker right now, for me he's been knocking it out of the park at every at-bat (at least his features, his shorts in V/H/S and The ABC's of Death are not good, particularly
    ABC's which is downright reprehensible). I seem to be alone in my love for The Sacrament, but that movie reeeeeeeeeeeeeeally got under my skin, and I'm very excited for whatever he's got coming next.

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    1. I need to see The Sacrament a third time. I loved it the first time I saw it and really didn't like it the second time.

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    2. I liked it the first time. I liked it the second time. It's FINE. :)

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  5. Thanks Adam. Thats two films I need to see in November. This film must of sneaked by me. And shamefully I've still not got to see Innkeepers yet. I am a fan of 80s Horror as you know and especially the slow burn type where you don't get to see the Monster till the end of the movie.

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    1. Just an FYI, House of the Devil is available on VHS so it could make a great bonus addition to your marathon. http://gorgon-video.com/products/house-of-the-devil-vhs

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    2. Great idea JP but my thing is Only Horror Films from the 80s. And this film is too new. I've started and I want to be faithfull to my 80s VHS Horrorathon. I've even had new Blurays turn up this week I cant watch. And if thats not enough I have the new lovely Scream factory bluray of The Burning but I had to watch it on my old video. Now that's faithfull, or mad, I'll let you choose which ;)

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  6. Like Adam, I watched House of the Devil on VOD and was absolutely entranced. It was by far my favorite movie that year, and I've sung its praises to just about every person I know who is a fan of genuine horror. Last week, I watched it again and enjoyed it every bit as much as I did the first go-around. Even knowing what was going to happen, the movie was tense.

    The thing I think I love most about HOTD is that it works as both a tribute to the types of movies West loves and as a standalone horror film. I know there are a lot of people out there who don't enjoy the aesthetic or feel the payoff isn't worth the wait, but I totally disagree. It's an amazing horror film. Thanks for writing about it.

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    1. I agree on the complaints about the payoff. I think it definitely delivers.

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  7. This has been in my betflix queue waiting to watch with excitement this month but I'm now sold on watching it this weekend!

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    1. Awesome! Let me know what you think :-)

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