The House of the Devil (2009)

There's a lot of debate about The House of the Devil online: some people claim it's an arty, intelligent, slow-burning exercise in tension that goes a little awry at the end, while others claim it's so dull they fell asleep halfway through.

The second camp is right.

The House of the Devil starts out promisingly: it's a pitch perfect imitation of 80s horror movies, right down to the font used in the credits. It really does look great. There's been so much care and effort put into making the film look fantastic that, it seems, there was nothing left to make it, y'know, actually good.

The plot, such as it is, is familiar enough: Samantha is a poor student who urgently needs to find the means to move into her own apartment, and a babysitting job for the admittedly creepy Mr Ulman seems like a great way to generate some cash. There's something seriously off about his house when she arrives, and when it emerges that this isn't actually a babysitting job at all - there is no baby, only an elderly woman - Sam's ready to leave. But Ulman makes her an offer she can't refuse (an outrageously over-the-top $400 for an evening's work) and she agrees to stay. Naturally, it turns out that the elderly woman she's there to take care of is, well, some kind of scary mutated thing, and the Ulmans don't want a babysitter so much as a vessel for the devil.

It's tediously predictable, but many widely acknowledged horror classics don't offer much more than that. Suspiria, for example, doesn't have much more of a plot than that. But Suspiria had brilliant visuals and interesting set-pieces along the way, while The House of the Devil has, um, a scene where Samantha has a very long conversation with a pizza place, one in which she breaks and subsequently clears up a vase, and one in which she talks to a goldfish. Beyond that, nothing happens for the entire first 70 minutes of the film, and it's achingly boring.

If the payoff was worth it, I might have been able to forgive the film's utter inability to create a character with any depth, or a believeable situation to put her in, or any actual tension. But it isn't. For one shining moment, it looked like The House of the Devil might actually have some guts; like it might actually stray off the well-trodden path it had been mindlessly wandering along all the way through. In the film's final moments, after escaping from an uninspired Satanic ritual, Samantha realises that there's no way for her to win. Ulman chases her down in a nearby graveyard, and it becomes clear that it's too late for her now; she's thoroughly infected with evil. She turns the gun on herself and blows her brains out.

... Except that she doesn't. It would be better if she had; it's the first time she shows any kind of intelligence or strength of character or ... well, anything, really, and it was the first time the film got close to being shocking. It's not a happy ending, sure, but when you're battling the Devil, things don't often turn out rosy. Instead, the film went for a much more predictable ending, leaving a bandaged Samantha resting comfortably in a hospital bed, having somehow miraculously survived, with her devil-baby intact. It's a cop out, and worse, it's a predictable cop out, and even worse than that, it's a boring predictable cop out that thinks it's clever.

There is absolutely no depth to this movie. It has nothing to say, nothing to contribute to the genre, nothing to offer the viewer except some flickering lights to stare blankly at. The central female character is a complete blank canvas; the film is never scary because you can't invest in her, you can't believe in her, she's nothing but an actress walking around and saying words. She's offered dozens of ways out of the situation we're supposed to believe is hopeless, and she takes none of them. She doesn't trust her own instincts, or those of her friend who's trying desperately to get her to see that the babysitting job is creepy as all hell, but there's no sense of an inner struggle, any sense that she's doing this out of desperation, or anything other than ennui. Although even that would make more sense than what the film presents us with. This film is so dull that you'd almost want to find a Satanic cult to hook up with just to shake off the crushing boredom.

I've actually had the misfortune of watching -- or trying to watch -- another of Ti West's movies: Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever. That one is unwatchable shit in a whole different way than The House of the Devil: it's lowest-common-denominator toilet humour, and I couldn't sit through it. I'm afraid I've just added another director to the list of filmmakers whose films I just won't watch. I value my time and sanity far too highly for that.

IMDB link


Ron said...

Is that the one that they released on VHS tape to further cement its street cred? Or am I mistaken?

Sarah Dobbs said...

You're not mistaken, it is indeed!