The House of the Devil
When I realized that tongue-in-cheek horror writer-director Ti West's latest was produced by the same company that brought us last year's delightful horror comedy I Sell the Dead, I'll admit my own personal bar was raised ten-fold. But while the 80s-inspired haunted house throwback delivers a healthy dose of nostalgia, The House of the Devil is otherwise mostly dissatisfying.
The film's opening sequence, while pointlessly lengthy, has an excitingly reminiscent feel: the camera alternately meanders and freeze-frames on young Sam (Jocelin Donahue) as she walks from her apartment to her college campus, listening to a clunky period walkman that blasts an upbeat synth-y tune. Unfortunately though, the "pointlessly lengthy" doesn't stop there. It takes about forty minutes of non-scenes post-opening (featuring some cringe-worthy non-acting by Donahue) to reach our creaky country mansion so the actual horror can finally begin.
Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov are the film's saving graces as Mr. and Mrs. Ulman, the disconcerting owners of the house. Both actors manage to simultaneously charm the audience and make us savagely uncomfortable. Even though there is something unarguably off about the two, we find ourselves hoping that their bizarre request for Sam to babysit Mrs. Ulman's mother is actually genuine.
There is a slew of feminist literature on the films from which The House of the Devil is derived, particularly on characters like Sam, known as the "final girl" archetype. Like the Jamie Lee Curtises and Neve Campbells before her, Donahue is meant to be a bit of a paradox: alluring but virginal, both victim and survivor, just helpless enough but too cunning to actually fall at the hands of her monster. Somehow though, West manages to miss the cunning part completely, leaving a young woman who miraculously survives despite making mistakes of the caliber usually reserved for the genre's dizzy best friend character (played here by the wonderful Greta Gerwig) or fake out protagonist (see Psycho's Janet Leigh or Drew Barrymore in Scream). Acting aside, Donahue isn't given much of a character with which to start.
Still, the time Sam spends exploring the house solo, though drawn out, is awfully disquieting. West's cinematography builds a sharp sense of doom, seemingly from thin air. Ultimately, however, the payoff doesn't nearly fit the buildup, and we're left with nothing more than a lame, half-assed rip-off of Rosemary's Baby. Perhaps West should have spent less time on foreplay and a little more time on the main event.