Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The House of the Devil

A nifty little indie movie that could, Ti West's The House of the Devil manages the rare feat of being a genre throwback that doesn't wink at you and nudge your tongue into your cheek. Rather, I spent an hour-and-a-half at the theater last night being gently lulled into the feeling I was actually watching a horror movie from the early 80's. It's a swell trick.

Relative newcomer Jocelin Donahue (who has to be at least distantly related to - if not secretly given up for adoption by - Margot Kidder) plays Samantha, a soft-spoken college Sophomore with a horrible roommate. She's just rented an apartment from Dee Wallace, in a cameo that, again, would make you think Kevin Williamson wrote the thing, and she needs some cash to float the deposit. Answering a want-ad for a babysitter, she ends up in a dimly lit, labyrinthine mansion in the middle of nowhere with a rotary telephone in the kitchen her only line to the civilized world.

Obviously, with a title like The House of the Devil, you know what Samantha's getting herself into. But I found myself repeatedly faked out by the premise, wondering when - or if - something was actually going to happen to Samantha that would qualify this as a horror movie. I had to remind myself of the (shocking) couple seconds of first-act violence as proof that evil was actually afoot.

But all on her own, Samantha sets herself up to be creeped out by this place. We know long before she does that as she goes exploring the house - peering around corners and into rooms lit either poorly or not at all - she could get accosted by Satanists at any turn. The build-up of tension throughout the beginning and middle of this movie will remind the most romantically-stagnant of couples how useful foreplay can be.

The moment that lingers with me is when Samantha almost absent-mindedly takes a knife from the kitchen and carries it with her into the bathroom. "Get a grip" she tells herself in the mirror - exactly echoing an earlier bit of self-flagellation applied while hiding from her roommate in her dormitory bathroom. Her roommate, at the time, had left a sock on the doorknob precluding Sam from entering and interrupting a session with her boy-of-the-day. Later Samantha sneaks into the room to grab her bag and the boy gives her a seedy grin. Samantha is disugsted.

Why, in that moment, does Samantha grab the knife? The middle segment of the film, after she is left alone in the house and before the Hell breaks loose upon her, is dripping with a paranoid fear. Her best friend had psyched her out and Mr. Ullman (Tom Noonan), the old man paying her for her time, was clearly hiding several things, but she's behaving like a victim before anything has happened to her.

The movie is refreshingly light on mythology; only in its final moment is any attempt made to establish exactly what the heck has been going on. Like a quiet older brother to Paranormal Activity, this year's runaway horror hit, The House of the Devil makes expert use of negative space - in plunging so much of the frame so often into complete darkness, but also in keeping us completely uninformed as to the plots, motives or methods of the antagonists. And when it comes time to wrap it up (where Paranormal Activity found a shepherd in Steven Spielberg and collapsed on its own sword), Samantha's twist pregnancy leaves some room for ambiguity.

While the horror trope of the pretty girl getting knocked up by Satan is a fine ending for this movie, it's infinitely more interesting to read it as double entendre. Samantha's behavior throughout the first act is that of a scared social deliquent. She is repulsed by her roommate's promiscuity. She wanders around an eerily vacant campus with only one friend that we see (and she, too, tends to rub Samantha the wrong way). She orders pepperoni pizza that she cannot bring herself to eat. She wants to move off campus and is risking her already-delicate financial stability in order to do so. The implication is that Samantha, prior to becoming the victim of Satanic assault, found herself the victim of sexual assualt. It puts her on edge constantly, and whether she's conscious of it or not, she's carrying with her every day the trauma, both physical and emotional, of the event.

Her experience even leads her to fight back against the Satanists with an energy that none of the characters foresaw. When she has her cemetary showdown with Mr. Ullman, Tom Noonan remains an unsettlingly soothing presence. "Speak with me," he pleads as Samantha raises a gun at him. He explains that the devil has chosen her, and before she can allot herself a second thought, she points the gun at her head and fires.

While a reading of the film as a metaphor for the emotional torment that occurs inside the head of a survivor of sexual assault is neither necessary nor actually conclusive, it exposes the precision with which Ti West has crafted his piece. He's working with psychological fear - there's a reason the movie is almost all set-up for a payoff that is rushed through the projector in only a few minutes. Samantha the babysitter is a heroine whose complexities run deep through her silences, just like the horror she stumbles into.

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