Films about Cults. I have a shaky history with films about Cults. I saw the remake of The Wicker Man a few years back and hated it. I saw the original Wicker Man this year and didn't feel much more. I've seen enough horror films that have started promising and then played the 'twist' cult card for the final act to last me a lifetime. Outside of Rosemary's Baby and Martha Marcy May Marlene I have never enjoyed the depiction of cults in cinema. Outside of Rosemary's Baby and Martha Marcy May Marlene a filmic cult has never managed to scare me even slightly. For these reasons it was at least partially refreshing to see a film open with a title card proclaiming that it would eventually enter cult territory, a warning if you will, allowing me to brace for the inevitable moment where someone gets tied up and bled on.
The House of the Devil
Ti West // 2009 // 15 // 95 mins
Samantha Hughes is a sophmore at college and in the process of moving from student accomdation into a pricey new house. Wraught with monetary woes she reluctantly takes a babysitting job and, in spite of a troublesome start with the employer and a miscommunication of the jobs actual requirements, finds herself spending four hours in a house full of creaky floorboards, fragile antiques and some of the ugliest interior decor captured on film. It is only when she begins to explore the homes various rooms that Samantha discovers problems in the new owners story and becomes suspicious of the couples intentions, as well as those of the tennant she hears wandering the premises unseen.
Director Ti West is clearly very adept in his field and knows the genre extremely well. The film is a slow burner, but one that successfully veers away from the 'boring' territory these kinds of films so very often find themselves in. In a film which principally relies on drawn out build ups there is very rarely a dull moment. West knows exactly how long to wait between 'scares' so as to achieve maximum impact and as a result the majority of the film feels like a master class in pacing. Similarly effective is the choice of scares on display, the balance of simple imagery (masses of cut hair in a bathtub) and genuine jumps (banging on doors) is handled particularly well. Unusually for the babysitter sub-genre the viewer is also provided with more information than the protagonist, which effectively aids the concern for her safety, one shot in which the viewer is presented with the scene behind a locked door is perfectly executed and is refreshing at a time where the majority of films exploit their horrific setpieces for every ounce of impact.
When the film eventually enters the territory of Cultiness and the like there is an appearance of familiar favourites, such as rapid shos of grotesque, ritualistic images, disjointed editing and the distortion of sounds for a subjective effect. The use of these techniques, while standard and arguably necessary for this kind of sequence does somewhat cloud the brilliance of what precedes it. Wests' choice of an 80's setting and aesthetic is brilliant in its execution and the film is solidly evocative of the period, channelling the complete feel of the eras horror films. This choice, along with the openings up-front-ness about its satanic content may indicate towards this film being a commentary of both the cinema and the social attitudes of this time. This interpretation is further supported by the films ability to be taken as either a serious horror, or an ironic pastiche, supposedly depending on the veiwers relationship with the genre.
Leading the viewer through this journey is Jocelin Donahue. As Samantha she is everything one could hope for in a protagonist; endearing, smart and relatable, and although she also suffers from familiar downfalls, such as an unrelenting curiosity and the occasional bout of sheer idiocy, she is a solidly developed character for the viewer to cheer along. In support is Tom Noonan as Mr Ulman, who is unfortunately less effective in his role. A calm voice and overbearing physical presence should inform a sinister and chilling character, Noonans delivery however is dull and seems to lead the film closer to the verge of being a satire of the genre. In contrast Mary Woronov as Mrs Ulman is sublime in her role and teeters between affectionate and eery with ease. Woronov is, however, severely underused, making only fleeting appearances in the whole of the 95 minute runtime. Finally Greta Gerwig provides a performance which it seems was only written so as to serve the aesthetic of the 80's setting, her perfectly feathered head and charismatic presence providing simple expository purposes to develop Samantha's story.
The House of the Devil is part of a rare horror collective which do not force scares and gore down the viewers throat, instead settling for tension and suggestion. With a fantastic central performance from Donahue making the overall experience a thoroughly engaging one, in spite of a full throttle final act and disappointing turn from Noonan. It's been said more than enough, but Ti West is most certainly a director to keep an eye on.