Monday, 17 May 2010

Horror Corner: The House of the Devil

There have been good things said about Ty West’s 80’s retro horror film The House of The Devil. With a freshness rating hovering around the mid-80’s, this has been a generally well received little horror flick, applauded for its tightly crafted suspense and atmosphere of foreboding, all delivered in a cheesy, classic 80’s style. As a keen horror fan, and general admirer of the most consistently hilarious decade yet, nothing could be more appealing than a cleverly executed (wink wink) 80’s horror yarn – what a brilliant idea to juxtapose the look and style of a simpler form of cinema with more modern, sophisticated writing and cinematic techniques to really get some surprising results – what a fantastic opportunity to really confound some expectations. What a massive waste. For every 5 reviews heaping praise upon this film, there sits one unhappy lump that just didn’t get it. I say "didn’t get it", I think they got it just fine, for I am indeed one of these moaning minorities – The House of the Devil is simply not a very good film by any standards and like many others who didn’t get it, I’m left scratching my head at how it has managed to garner such widespread adoration.

Lets be clear – making a movie today that looks like it was made in the 80’s is a great idea. Here the movie is massively, wildly successful. Everyone’s hair is right, the big bombastic rock song over the cheesy credits is just right, the grainy film and tinny sound design is all just right. As a piece of retro tributism, this is top class stuff, absolutely no doubt. But the funny thing about 80’s films, specifically 80’s horror films, much like their action film cousins, is that they were by and large, crap. Shonky writing, inappropriate music, wonky plots, floppy scenery, terrible acting, risible dialogue and little regard for decent continuity. Yes the 80’s had it all, and by George we loved them anyway. True, returning to many of our most feared 80’s slasher flicks these days can leave us cold – is it that the films have grown old or that we have? (it's the films stupid). Regardless, to take the trappings of the 80’s and lay it over a framework of modern horror is undoubtedly an exciting postmodern concept. Except Ty hasn’t done that. No, he’s just gone and made a straight 80’s movie. Hmm.

So we join our heroine flat hunting, Joceline Donahue’s Samantha is looking to move off campus away from her noisy shagging roomie. She needs cash fast and luckily (?) spots an ad for a babysitter. She gives it a call and leaves a message, only to be called straight back at the payphone by a softly spoken gentlemen. Alarm bells ring already, this is great, it’s like being back in the 80’s! After some umm-ing and ahh-ing, Samantha and buddy drive out to the remote spooky house to do the job. Welcomed by a suitably creepy Tom Noonan (last seen by me as Cain in Robocop 2, further enhancing my 80’s vibe) it is explained that the job is actually to look after Cain’s ageing mother and not the kids at all. No problem, the cash is king. Meanwhile, Samantha’s ride runs into a spot of bother on the drive back to college, in what it emerges as the only genuine shock of the film, but which at this point we take for a sign of the many wonderfully unexpected things to come. We were all of us, deceived.

In a nicely slow burning twisting of the tension, we now witness young nubile Samantha gaily setting about her babysitting duties. She watches TV. She reads her books. She listens to bad rock music on her massive walkman, while footloosing it around the house, all the while we look through our fingers in anticipation of the HORROR ABOUT TO BE REVEALED… oh, nothing happened? And this goes on. She dutifully orders pizza as she was instructed to several times to (bit suspicious) she explores darkened spooky corners of the house, behind which probably lie unspeakable horrors (they do in fact, we see some, but their reveal is so mundanely handled it might as well be a potting shed), she discovers boxes of mysterious photos of strangely absent other people and eventually the third act limps in and Ty remembers to put some "horror" in.

The intention here was clearly to build an air of so much mortal tension that by the time the levee breaks, the audience will be a gibbering wreck. Except of course, we know what’s going to happen. Everyone knows that a film called house of the devil, in which a nubile babysitter desperate for money who's been persuaded to babysit a probable witch hag by a deeply creepy man and his wife is more than likely to end up tied to a pentagram about to be sacrificed to satan. We all knew that was going to happen Ty. What we expected was for you to mix it up a bit, bring some of those modern ideas to the table, on top of your already very modern idea of retro-styling. But instead, when the climax does come, it is exactly as a film in the 80’s would have done it. The witch hag is revealed as a deeply unscary midget with a mask on, the family a bunch of satanic devil worshippers intent on bringing their dark lord into the world through the sacrifice of a babysitter. The fights and murders that break out are as poorly executed and laughably bad as any of the finest 80’s b-movies. The ending is as stupidly daft as 1985 cinephile might have been happy with, but to churn it all out these days as is, without adding anything conceptually new or exciting is just pointless. Today, we frankly expect a bit more. We were hanging on for a shock that never came, a scare that had some teeth. Not necessarily gore or monsters or modern effects, but surely something could have been achieved without breaking the 80’s spell? Instead, that interminably slow 2/3rds of the film, that at the time felt so tense and full of promise, becomes on reflection little more than a very long, slow, uneventful time filler. And yet still critics argue that Ty is the master of the slow burn, one even going as far to compare him to Hitchcock! What are these people smoking? I get that the build up to a dramatic event can often be better than the event itself, but there is a ratio at work here, for every ten minutes of nothing going on onscreen, I expect to be this scared by the payoff. Sadly this film has no such ratio, and by the end, I wasn't even this much scared.

By sticking so doggedly to the brief of recreating the look and feel of an earlier time West has created a hollow, damp squib of a movie. Technically excellent in the near perfect cloning of a bona fide 80’s style, and with solid performances from everyone involved, the tension and excellent atmosphere of dread carefully cultivated in the first half collapses into farce in the absence of a suitable climax. You may as a result end up feeling massively cheated, in a way a bad modern movie just couldn’t deliver. I can watch bad 80’s bargain bucket movies whenever I like, I don’t need to sit through a modern film pretending to be a crappy 80’s movie, only for it to turn out that it really is a crappy 80’s movie after all! A great disappointment after such a promising setup, and a massively wasted opportunity.

Treehouse Rating: 2/5


80's hairdos were scarier

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