Sunday, October 3, 2010

Rewind Review: House of the Devil (2009)

Just because we've been remiss in posting doesn't mean we haven't been watching horror movies. Hell no. We've just been really slack about reviewing them, see? But, since we hate to waste perfectly good snarkiness, we're going to post some "Rewind Reviews" of these movies that are no longer current, but are still worth telling you about. They're good, they're bad - and some are so bad they're good. 

House of the Devil (2009)

This movie was released on October 30 of 2009. The debut was at the Tribeca Film Festival in NYC, and after that it had limited release in the US before it was released on DVD in February of 2010.

I had seen promo trailers on IFC and was looking forward to this film being more interesting than the usual crop of modern horror films. The fact that it was purposely styled like an old 70s film look was appealing. I was a kid in the 70s and all the great horror films that had a lasting impact on me came from the 70s. The first Halloween movie (1978) was ground-breaking in many ways and remains one of the best  movie theater experiences of my life. So it was with some anticipation that I sat down to watch this offering.

The opening of the film has the feel of a 70s movie (in the extra features on the DVD, the director says that he was going for the 80s, but this is most definitely 70s) and right off you might think it's some kind of spoof because it's done in such a way that it's clearly emulating a style from another time. That is to say it's cheesy as hell. Freeze frames, old style titling - worse than Starsky and Hutch.

The main character, a college student named Samantha, is desperately trying to find a place to live off-campus because she has a skanky roommate who does nothing all day but sleep and fuck her boyfriend in the dorm room that she supposedly shares with Samantha. I empathized with her immediately on this. Nothing worse than coming back to your dorm room after class, hoping to chill out and maybe take a nap, only to find your roommate and her fixture of a bf holed up in her bed. It's not bad enough that you have no privacy in those horrid little cells they call rooms without having to put up with a roommate and her boyfriend who also has nothing better to do all day than stink up your room.

So perky Samantha (who reminded me of Karen Carpenter in a knit hat) goes looking for a place to rent and finds one that seems perfect. The landlady, played by Dee Wallace, is a huge nod to the 70s. She tells Samantha she has "a good feeling about her," as she reminds her of her own daughter. Fantastic. The only problem now is that poor Samantha is broke and can't possibly pay rent til she can make some money.

As if by magic she spots a sign advertising a need for a babysitter. She calls from a payphone outside the dorm and leaves a message along with her phone number at the dorm and somehow the dude calls her back at the payphone moments later (there was no caller id back then). They arrange to meet up, but the guy doesn't show. Later, he calls her back at the dorm, offers to pay her double and tells her to come to his house.

I give Samantha a little credit for telling her friend Megan about the babysitting gig and having her drive to the house with her and go in to meet the people. Always a good idea not to just go off to meet strangers alone. Megan doesn't stick around though; she's supposed to come back later to pick up Samantha when she's done for the night. Oh well. You'll see how well that works out.

Turns out the house is old and creepy, and the people are weird and creepy. Mr. Ullman is a tall, somber guy (Tom Noonan) with an annoyingly soft way of speaking like some kind of cult leader. His wife is played by a very Joan-Crawfordesque Mary Woronov (who I contend has never gotten enough acting roles and I just don't understand why not).  Once they get Samantha in the house, the Ullmans confess that they have no children, but they need someone to stay there with Mr. Ullman's mother who can't be left alone while they go out. Theys also seem to be very interested in the impending lunar eclipse that is about to happen and keep going on about it in a way that you might suspect foreshadows things that are going to get both ridiculous and freaky.  Most people probably would have said, "Eh, nevermind" but not Samantha, no.  She's so desperate for money that she won't be put off by any of it.

Without telling you the whole plot of the movie and ruining it for you, suffice to say that it gets both ridiculous and freaky.

There are scenes in this movie that made me laugh or scratch my head, and I never could figure out if they were just paying homage to horror films of the 70s (I know they say 80s, but trust me, that's not what the 80s looked like and just shoving a few 80s songs in there won't make it so) or if this movie was just a little bit shitty. Samantha is a girl who can't just sit still and watch tv - she'd rather put on her headphones and dance around the house like some kind of reject from Fame (or Glee for you youngsters). She also has a curiosity that leads her to start exploring the house room by room and rifling through closets. Okay, maybe that's not completely unbelievable, but it's at least bad form. I did a lot of babysitting in my day, and I can honestly say I never pawed through anyone's personal belongings while I was being paid to care for their children. Then again, it is all designed to get you from point A to point B in the plot.

It gets pretty weird, too. The swelling violin music, narrow stairways to who-knows-where, disturbing clumps of hair in the bathtub, pentagrams in blood, and someone in a white van who seems to be lurking around the property.... all these things that lead up to the big climatic scenes at the end when they finally get around to "what the fuck is going on here" are pretty trippy. Rent it for yourself to see what happens. Netflix has it. Really, it's fun.

As mentioned, the DVD does have some extra features, including an interview with the writer/director. That's always fun. Also, the credits were amusing to me, since they basically thanked everyone who ever loaned them a pen or held open an elevator door. I mean eBay is even on the list. Then again, so is Barbizon. Isn't that the famous school of modeling?? Perhaps that's where they found some of the fine acting talent.


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