The House of the Devil (Blu-ray)(Dark Sky Films, 2.2.2010)
Small-scale horror productions typically yield iffy results. Then again, many of the genre’s standouts were made cheaply and, for that reason, effectively. On that note, how The House of the Devil got stuck with an infinitesimal theatrical run to coincide with a hopeless video-on-demand run is anyone’s guess. The latest indie-horror offering from Ti West (The Roost, Trigger Man) -- discounting that god-awful Cabin Fever sequel he tried to remove his name from -- even managed to receive raves from non-horror critics and boasted some of the coolest retro promo art ever.
Writer-director-editor West creates a remarkably accurate throwback to the late seventies/early eighties horror heyday (think Suspiria meets When a Stranger Calls), but rightly forgoes an ironic tone and overwrought pop culture references, in order to provide something that could easily pass for what it emulates. The only difference between The House of the Devil and most of the films that inspired it is that it’s arguably better.
Avoiding a completely predictable blueprint, the film is reasonably conservative in some moments and more impulsive in others. This brings out the best and worst qualities of West's approach, sometimes to jarring effect. The House of the Devil works best when explicit horror is held back (the moments of extreme gore are certainly not among the film’s tall merits). Like any sufficiently thrilling rollercoaster, this film is all about the ascent. It’s so deliberately paced that the prospect of a lackluster payoff is indeed scarier than the imminent doom facing our protagonist.
The setup is reasonably stock: coed needs cash, so she agrees to babysit under bizarre conditions and is then subjected to a creepy house and an even creepier satanic ritual. Plot-wise, I’m not spoiling. The title is the plot. And like I said, it’s all about the build-up. The suspense lies in what the audience knows and the babysitter does not.
The film shines in its casting of both newcomers and seasoned cult players. Equally matched is newbie Jocelin Donahue as the heroine who does all the legwork -- the majority of the film consists of her creeping about in ominously lit rooms -- and mumblecore vet Greta Gerwig as her blond, brazen friend. Since this babysitting gig would not be whole without villainous employers, Tom Noonan (looking less overtly intimidating than he did with a stocking over his face in Manhunter) and Mary Woronov (doing back-to-back "devil" throwback flicks with this and Rob Zombie's The Devil’s Rejects) are suitably odd as evil’s minions. Additionally, scream queen Dee Wallace (The Howling, Cujo) briefly appears in the film’s opening minutes.
Considering West shot the majority of the film in 16mm, the look of this Blu-ray is accurately vintage, exhibiting the grainy, de-saturated look that was a trademark of so many low-budget horror titles from the seventies and eighties. The image adjusts to a distinguishably modern look during the climax, which kind of kills the retro buzz at the worst possible moment. Still, it’s always nice to see Blu-ray enhance a distinctly rough look, rather than simply making slick images slicker. Both the film and this home video release earn high marks on that front.
The sporadic score is equally faithful to the horror films of yore. Ironically, the soundtrack is best experienced in 5DTS HD, offering an incredibly atmospheric aural experience that enhances the simmering terror tenfold.
Extras-wise, we get two separate commentary tracks: one with West and Donahue and one with West, producers Larry Fessenden and Peter Phok and sound designer Graham Reznick. The West/Donahue track is more candid than the tech-savvy second track, but both are worth your time, as they rarely overlap.
Also included is a rather artistic behind-the-scenes montage and three throwaway deleted scenes -- two of which are taken from the same telephone conversation, but from different ends of the line -- that were rightfully excised, but still make for welcome extras. Lastly, we get a theatrical trailer that doesn’t quite do the film justice.
While this Blu-ray is certainly the best way to see/hear The House of the Devil, the definitive viewing experience may be amazon.com’s exclusive bundling of the DVD with a limited edition VHS copy. A Blu-ray/VHS combo would have offered the best range of the format spectrum, but I suppose that’s asking a lot. With this excellent BD copy in hand, I have yet to plunk-down for that tempting analogue incarnation.
Aside from a couple missteps, The House of the Devil is our unanimous choice for horror flick of 2009 -- and it is clearly West’s best film to date. Sandwiched between utterly perfect opening and closing credit sequences, the film's absorbing narrative goes down with delectable ease. Bonus points if you watch this in the dark with a dubious-looking medium or a large pizza. No smalls (you'll get it when you see the movie). -- Neil Karassik