House of the Devil, The (2009): Horror Flick Starring Greta Gerwig and Mary Woronov

The most interesting aspects of the recent cycle of horror flicks, which are riding high at the marketplace, is not their stories or technical execution, but their subtexts and contexts. In other words, how they relate to other films of the genre and how they connect with young audiences that were not even born when the classics to which the “new” ones refer to and borrow from were made.

 

In its retro (but not cool retro) plot and characters, “House of the Devil” aims to attach itself to better movies and TV specials on Satanic cults, such as Polanski’s “Rosmeary’s Baby,” “The Omen,” and to the sub-genre of the nanny or babysitter from hell (Curtis Hanson’s terrific 1992 “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle”). I say aim, because this movie is way below them in terms of overall accomplishment and impact.

 

Among other extra-artistic functions, the latest wave of horror movies have serve as a training ground for up and coming directors. As a genre, with its own definable thematic codes, stylistic conventions, and iconography, horror lends itself easily to remakes, imitations, derivations, prequels and sequels.

 

Take Ti West, whose new horror film unabashedly bears the most generic title imaginable, “The House of the Devil.”  At best a craftsman, West has already made “The Roost,” and “Trigger Man,” and the forthcoming Lionsgate “Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever.”

 

As writer and director Ti West borrows shamelessly from 1980s (and other decades) horror films, setting his Gothic thriller in the 1980s, largely within a big house. Even the name of the heroine, Sam (Samantha), here played by Jocelin Donahue, is a cliché of 1980s screen names.

 

A sexy college sophomore, Sam is eager to earn some cash for a deposit on an apartment. She’s so desperate that she accepts a babysitting job even after she finds out there is no baby there.  Mr. and Mrs. Ulman, played by cult actors Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov, are the older couple that lures Sam out to their Victorian mansion deep in the woods, just in time for a lunar eclipse.

 

Earlier, Megan (Greta Gerwig), Sam’s best friend, gives her a ride out to the house, and then leaves her there, though she suspects that something is totally wrong. There is–plenty. For one thing, Sam’s responsibility is to take care of their old, eccentric mother (regards from Hitchcock), offering her the lucrative fee of $400 for four hours.

 

The first meeting between Mrs. Ulman and Sam is creepy, establishing tension that continues to build-up in the next reel or so. “You’re here for mother?” asks Mrs. Ulman, while touching Sam’s hair. A slow zoom shots depicts the two women settling together onto the love seat in the living room, a gesture that suggests intimacy and menace. The scene ends with close-ups of the two contrasting femmes, a powerful, middle-aged woman, boasting shapely legs and gentle smile that could be taken as lustily wistful, and an angelic, naïvely curious young woman who’s just beginning to understand the power of her allure.

 

At first, Sam spends the entire time alone in the desolate mansion.  Bored but curious, she follows in the footsetp of countless heroines who arrive at a mysterious big house (Joan Fontaine in “Rebecca”), snooping through most of the rooms, though you inevitably notice that the most ominous spaces, which matter the most in such stories, such as the attic and basement, remain off-limit.

 

Problem is, the audience is always ahead of the heroine and her not-too-spooky “discoveries.”  For example, Sam is too slow in finding evidence that the house doesn’t really belong to her employers and that soon the place is going to be used for some Satanic rituals.

 

Making things worse is the overly calculated build-up, which is too long (about half of the feature).  Some viewers may lose patience during those sequences waiting for the big, violent climax to arrive. That said, when the gory confrontations occur, the film delivers the expected goods, showing helmer West to be one notch above the hacks that populate the horror genre today.

 

While its young performers are pale, “House of the Devil” benefits from the iconic presence of two good indie actors, Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov, who have not teamed before. Watching Woronov, I couldn’t help but feel nostalgic for the kind of roles and films that made her a cult figure, Hanoi Hanna in Andy Warhol’s “Chelsea Girls,” and, of course, her appearances in Paul Bartel’s classics, “Eating Raoul” and “Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills.”

 

But in the end, “The House of the Devil,” which premiered at the Fantastic Fest and also played at Tribeca Film Festival, is just another schlocky flick, which will please young viewers during the Halloween weekend before moving onto the DVD shelves.

 

Cast

 

Sam – Jocelin Donahue Megan – Greta Gerwig Mrs. Ulman – Mary Woronov Mr. Ulman – Tom Noonan Victor – AJ Bowen Mother – Danielle Noe

 

Credits

 

A Magnet release of an MPI Media Group presentation, in association with Constructovision/Ring the Jing Entertainment, of a Glass Eye Pix production.

Produced by Josh Braun, Roger Kass, Larry Fessenden, Peter Phok.

Executive producers, Malik B. Ali, Badie Ali, Hamza Ali, Greg Newman.

Co-producer, Derek Curl. Directed, written, edited by Ti West. Camera, Eliot Rockett.

Music, Jeff Grace.

Production designer, Jade Healy.

Art director, Chris Trujillo.

Costume designer, Robin Fitzgerald.

Ssound, Jack Hutson, Andrejs Prokopenko, Joshua Neal; sound designer, Graham Reznick.

Special makeup effects, Christian Fitzgerald.

Visual effects supervisor, John Loughlin.

Stunt coordinator, Tony Vincent.

Assistant director, Zeke Dunn.

Casting, Lisa Fields.

 

MPAA Rating: R.

 

Running time: 93 Minutes.