Final Girl Film Club: The House of the Devil

I’ve always wanted to participate in the Final Girl Film Club.  But as is always the case with me, laziness prevailed, and I just ended up watching The Fog for the 10,000th time every month and wishing I’d had the motivation to be one of the cool kids.  I’d seen awesome movie after awesomely bad movie fly by, and I’d been sitting on my bed watching reruns of Roseanne.  (Hey, I grew up in a working class Illinois family.  Roseanne is my show.)

I was thrilled this month to see that Final Girl herself, one Ms. Stacie Ponder, chose a film I’d actually already written about.  I wrote a review of The House of the Devil for Fused Film shortly after it was released in theaters here in New York.  When the film was released on DVD, I bought it, and I have now seen it upwards of ten times.  So I think, maybe, I might be able to pull it off this time.

If you click on the above link, you’ll see what I originally thought of the film, but what I am interested in now is discovering what I think now that the film has made its official mark in my life and consciousness.  Hey, I recently discovered I’d been wrong about The Descent all along.  And what a shame that was.  I could have been loving it all these years.

The House of the Devil is the story of college sophomore Samantha.  She’s living in a horrible roomie situation (haven’t we all been there?)  The girl is a slob.  And a slut.  She puts socks on the door (slut move number 1) and refuses to let Samantha truly live in her own home.  When she finds the perfect apartment, courtesy of Landlady Dee Wallace (thanks for that, Ti West), she only has to figure out how to pay for it.

Even though Samantha’s best friend Megan offers to help fund her escape from the SlutMonster, Samantha has her pride (always a killer, no?), so she refuses–instead taking a babysitting job for the Ulman family.

When Megan drives her out to their house in the middle of nowhere, she tries to convince Samantha all is not right in Whoville.  Mr. Ulman has lied.  She won’t be watching a young child, but instead she’ll be watching over Mrs. Ulman’s mother, a woman who is apparently able-bodied and isolationist.  Megan loses, however, and as soon as Mr. Ulman offers up four hundred eighties bucks, Samantha agrees.

Megan leaves Samantha to it and heads angrily away from the house.  And so it’s just Samantha in for the night.  She sits down to study and watch TV, but it doesn’t take long for her sense something… not quite right in this old house.  From this moment on, Samantha will be terrorized by… what?  Well, just you watch and see.

The House of the Devil was designed to be an eighties throwback.  And for the most part, it works really well at being exactly that (except for the fact that The Devil is more of a seventies construct in horror, but hey, we’ll just let that go).  It’s got the tone and feel of eighties horror down pretty well.  And it manages to contain some quality scares in there too.

What works in HotD works well.  Jocelin Donahue is incredible as Samantha–lovable and frightened.  She’s not someone I would ever mind following through this horrible night.  She’s a lovely creature made even lovlier by the trauma she goes through and the strength she shows.

She’s complemented well by Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov as Mr. and Mrs. Ulman.  You’d be hard-pressed to find a horror fan who doesn’t know these two souls–especially Mary Woronov (hello, Chopping Mall)–but my knowledge of her comes straight from her Andy Warhol days in which she abused other women in the film Chelsea Girls (an almost unwatchably bad film that somehow manages to be fascinating).  These are two people I would follow to the ends of the Earth–Noonan because he cannot help but appear gentle and Woronov because I’d be afraid she’d hurt me if I didn’t.

But for some reason, it’s really Greta Gerwig who steals the show for me.  This was my first experience with her, and upon later seeing her Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg, I am utterly convinced she is the most charming young actress working today.  Her Megan is the most believable character in the film–goofy, protective, loving, and brave.  It’s almost (and I do mean almost) a shame she doesn’t last all that long.

While all of this works so well, it’s really the house that seals the deal.  For the first two thirds of the movie, we are fully entrenched in what seems like a potential haunted house story.  It’s all that creeping about the house that does it for us.  And it works this formula to its best potential.  There were several absolutely creepy moments, and dudes, I am super hard to creep out.

So it must seem like I love this movie.  I bought it and all, right?  And I guess, generally, I do really, really like it.  But it’s not without its flaws.

For the first two thirds when it’s trying to a primo haunted house story, it works perfectly.  The one moment of violence is incredible.  And in general, it’s just fucking amazing–to get reductive about it.  But the film switches gears at the end there, and that’s when it works… well… not so good.

The shift to the demonic bit is just not as effective as everything that comes before.  The lighting is too dramatic, and the demon face is way over the top.  And “over the top” is not okay in a film that is all about subtlety.  It just… loses itself in that third act.  If the rest of the film had been unremarkable, I would find it easier to excuse this third act, but it’s stuffed into a film that is proof it’s still possible to make a great, subtle, Carpenter-esque slow burn of a horror film, and as such, it just sort of bums me out.

So why did I buy it?  Well, I am a product whore, and really, those first two thirds are so good, I didn’t want to spend my life without them.  Maybe I’ll just stop watching before the third act change.

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~ by acaseofyou12581 on July 20, 2010.

3 Responses to “Final Girl Film Club: The House of the Devil”

  1. I echo a lot of your thoughts on this film (I’ll repost for the Film Club this weekend), particularly regarding the performances. All the actors are pitch perfect and Gerwig is just pure spark. I also liked her in Baghead, where I believe most of her part was improvised.

  2. I haven’t seen Baghead yet, but it’s sitting there in my queue just waiting for me to bump it up. She’s really remarkably charming, and her final scene in this movie is–in my opinion–the best scene in the entire film.

  3. I love your review. I’m glad we can both briefly be cool kids.

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