'The House of the Devil' is a throwback of sorts set during the "satanic panic" era written, edited, and directed by Ti West ('The Roost' and 'Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever'). Many critics have praised the film for its strong retro look, tone, and atmosphere -- which is so impressively authentic at times that it almost makes you feel as if you're watching some long-lost production from decades ago. It's just that once the nostalgic candy coating wears thin (and please bear in mind what I'm about to say is coming from an old school horror fan), all that really remains is an excruciatingly dull and derivative work that flushes all of its promise down the toilet. But I guess as with anything that's 100 percent style over substance -- how far the "style" succeeds in carrying the film is a matter of opinion.
The story takes place sometime during the early 1980s and follows Samantha Hughes (former Levi's model Jocelin Donahue), an attractive college sophomore finding dorm life miserable thanks to her slutty slob of a roommate. At long last, Sam may have finally found a means of escape -- a cozy little one-bedroom home within walking distance from campus. The place is clean, the rent is affordable, and the kindhearted landlady (a cameo by genre icon Dee Wallace) is even going to waive the security deposit. All Sam has to do is deliver the first month's rent by Monday and the place is hers -- unfortunately that's money she doesn't have.
As Sam mopes around wondering what she's going to do, she sees an ad posted at her school expressing the need for a babysitter. While it won't solve her problem at least it's a start, so she decides to give the number a call. This is where she makes contact with the peculiar Mr. Ulman (played by Tom Noonan of 'Manhunter') and they set up a meeting on campus grounds. Sam sits and waits patiently for the man to arrive, but as the minutes turn into hours -- it eventually dons on Sam that the soft-spoken (and somewhat creepy) voice is a no-show.
Later that day, an annoyed Sam spills her sorrows over pizza with her spunky best friend, Megan (Greta Gerwig). Megan tries to cheer up her chum and even offers her a quick and painless loan, but Samantha… declines. It seems Sam just can't swallow her pride. Or maybe she just senses the next sequence of events with the guy calling back to apologize and making a tempting offer she simply can't refuse. I'm going with option #2, and without spoiling anything further I'll just say that the moral of the story is when something smells too good to be true it probably is -- especially on the eve of a lunar eclipse!
'The House of the Devil' starts out brimming with so much potential, it really does. Ti West obviously loves classic horror films and you can tell that he's studied them long and hard through his direction. His camerawork is mainly calm and restrained and he puts slow zooms to use with great effect. But the devil is really in the details here -- from the feathered hair and the period-ish clothing, to Samantha's clunky Sony Walkman right down to the candy bar wrapper -- it's clear that a lot of effort went into creating a virtual blast from the past. Even the synthesizer music during the rustic opening credits sequence is a nice touch. Now I wouldn't call it perfect, as perceptive viewers may notice some modern fixtures and other elements that don't quite jibe with the setting's timeframe, but for the most part it's done extremely well for a production operating on a very tight budget.
That being said, it's disappointing that West doesn't put forth the same dedication and skill in all other areas. 'The House of the Devil' has too many things happening just for the sake of convenience that it becomes aggravating, which in turn makes everyone in the movie look like an idiot. Seriously, who the hell goes house hunting when they're jobless and penniless? And while Noonan and 'Death Race 2000's Mary Woronov (who apparently came out of her retirement for this movie) are admittedly brilliant choices for the baddies, honestly the charade that they put on would make even Wile E. Coyote go "WTF???" The saddest part is they are both totally underused, due to the fact that West's script is so hollow that they have nothing to do. What we get instead is a truckload of mundane filler of things like Samantha reading magazines and watching TV. Well I'm sorry, but this is frustrating to no end and brutally murders the suspense. There's a big difference between crafting slow-burning tension and padding your movie with frivolous tedium, but West gets those wires crossed far too often here.
Of course, I'd be willing to try and look past some of these problems if 'The House of the Devil' actually went somewhere and had a strong finish, but it doesn't and the payoff is pitiful. I won't give it away for those who haven't seen the movie, but I'll just say that West tacks on one of the most contrived and uninspiring climaxes in the history of horror filmmaking. Besides bombarding us with cliché after cliché and things happening for no reason whatsoever, West fires the classic approach leading up to this point out the window and jarringly reverts to a quick cut/shaky-cam technique that completely goes against the grain of the rest of the movie. All it did was convince me that this isn't the work of a young budding auteur -- it's the underdeveloped material of a film school student riding the coattails of nostalgia.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
MPI summons 'The House of the Devil' to home video in three incarnations: DVD, Blu-ray, and for the nostalgic horror fan, even a DVD/VHS bundle available exclusively at Amazon. The high-definition release comes on a single-layered BD-25 Blu-ray disc housed inside a standard blue keepcase. The disc boots up directly to the menu without any annoying promos. The U.S. version of the Blu-ray is also reported to region-locked and therefore will only function properly in Region A PlayStation 3 and standalone players.
The bulk of 'The House of the Devil' was shot on 16mm film stock, as according to West the cameras were smaller and easier to maneuver inside the house. As a result, the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 (1.78:1) encode isn't a pretty one (similar to Rob Zombie's 'Halloween II'), but in this particular case it does work in the film's favor.
The picture has an inconsistent grain field that varies from scene to scene. Sometimes it's light and pleasing, while other times the grain is so heavy that it becomes a distraction. Colors generally have a pale washed-out look and blacks are actually pretty decent with minimal crushing. Fleshtones are warm and healthy, if a bit on the soft side. Fine detailing and clarity can be hindered a little by the softness, but facial close-ups still retain solid texture and delineation. The image is also relatively flat, with only a handful of daylight shots offering any sort of depth. Night scenes are better than expected especially around the climax, though from what I gather 35mm cameras were used for those sequences.
While the Blu-ray of 'The House of the Devil' is a far cry from a dazzler, the gritty shopworn presentation gives the film a real authentic appearance.
The Blu-ray edition of 'The House of the Devil' receives two audio tracks: a lossless English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix as well as an English PCM 2.0 track. Optional English and Spanish subtitles are also provided.
The lossless mix of course has a fuller and more dynamic presentation. Dialogue comes through the center channel clean and well balanced with the rest of the track. The eighties' tunes and the score by composer Jeff Grace also sound decent, though none of the music ever strays very far from the front channels. Surrounds offer occasional discreet ambience including a bit of creepy house sound effects, but rear speaker activity is still pretty limited here and subtle at best. The LFE delivers adequate low rumbles from time to time, and it really cranks into overdrive for the ritual scene.
To be honest, both of the audio tracks on this Blu-ray aren't anything special to write home about, but in all fairness they do help complete the illusion that we're watching a few decades old film.
The Blu-ray version of 'The House of the Devil' includes all of the same supplements found on the DVD release. Take note that the audio commentaries are actually located in the set-up area on the menu, not in the special features section where they're normally found.
There's no two ways about it, I am not nor will I ever be an advocate for this 'Devil,' as I found it to be a hugely overrated disappointment. I have no issue giving Ti West a gold star for his retro-style (heck, I'll even give him two), but beyond that I just don't see anything else here worthy of praise. Ironically, the film's downfall for me is at the actual house, where the story takes a left turn to nonsensical nowheresville and West seems to sell his soul for a rushed letdown of a climax. This Blu-ray's video and audio aren't spectacular, though to be fair that's intentional, and the supplement package does have a few items some may find interesting. At any rate, 'The House of the Devil' is clearly one of those love it/hate it type films so if you haven't seen it then a word to the wise: rent it first. Just be sure to grab a pillow and blanket before you turn off the lights -- as you may very well need them.