Saturday, February 20, 2010

Style vs. Substance in The House of The Devil

Having been bombarded with hype-filled reviews, I went into THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL with high expectations. Unfortunately, I came away from the film feeling as disappointed as I felt after watching Oren Peli's over-hyped PARANORMAL ACTIVITY (which may have worked as a short film that took place over three nights, but was simply excruciating at feature length).

Ti West undeniably captured the look, sound and feel of indie horror films from the late '70s and early '80s. It's too bad that a lot of reviewers seem to have been so overcome with the film's style that they neglected to point out how little substance the film has. I guess I should have known better, given the trend in recent years where film analysis is being replaced with how a film either appeals to or offends a reviewer's sense of nostalgia in what are supposed to be film reviews.

When a reviewer has to qualify his or her review by dismissing people who didn't like the film with derogatory, uninformed generalizations about their intelligence, taste or attention spans, this is a strong indicator that the review is based upon nostalgia rather than the film's merits and flaws.

Other warning signs include the use of the term "throwback," or suggesting that a film is only for "true horror fans."

If you want to write a love letter to a filmmaker because he or she appealed to your love of slow, grainy horror films, fine. Pretending that this is the same thing as a film review is an insult to people who are trying to figure out whether or not they should invest their time and money going to the theater to see a film.

THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL starts with a clich├ęd "based upon true events" warning. We then learn that Samantha (played by Jocelin Donahue) is a "nice girl" - not because she actually does anything nice, but because Dee Wallace tells her (and the audience) that she has a "gut feeling." To further drive this point home, Samantha is contrasted with her roommate Heather. When Sam gets to her dorm room, she's greeted by the sounds of Heather having sex. Despite Sam's knocking on the door and saying, "It's morning," she fails to get a response, and leaves.

Sam then disregards every obvious sign that she shouldn't take a job babysitting at THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL. When she calls about the job from a payphone, she leaves her dorm room's phone number, yet her prospective employer, Mr. Ulman (played by Tom Noonan) immediately calls her back at the payphone. Being set in the early 1980s, I'm pretty sure that this story takes place prior to *69. Even if this isn't the case, we'll see later on that there are only rotary phones in THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL. After failing to meet Sam on campus, Mr. Ulman calls her dorm room and offers her $100 if she'll babysit for four hours that night. Despite his stating that "he'll make this as painless for her as possible" she inexplicably takes the job anyway.

I understand what it's like being strapped for cash, but this is ridiculous.

While driving Sam to THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, her friend Megan (played by Greta Gerwig) makes fun of people's interest in the evening's upcoming lunar eclipse. She even says, "It's not like the moon's going to explode - though that would be pretty cool."

Seriously, she says that.

It's astounding to me that some of the same reviews praising this film come from people who typically complain about unsympathetic characters and bad dialogue in other modern horror films. They also commonly complain about how predictable horror films have become, even though anyone who's seen ROSEMARY'S BABY can predict where this film is going. Even the twist ending feels like a cheat - much more so than the ending of HIGH TENSION, which is a film I refuse to apologize for liking. Again, many of the same critics who feel that the ending of HIGH TENSION ruined that film seem to be in love with THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL.

Perhaps - as they used to say in the movies - there are some things that man isn't meant to understand.

During Megan and Sam’s long drive to THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, we see that the Ulmans unsurprisingly live in a secluded, wooded area, just past a cemetery. Reaching their destination, Mr. Ulman explains that he lied about having a child, and Sam will actually be babysitting his elderly mother-in-law. Sam is initially reluctant, so he increases his offer to $200 and then $300 for the night. In a bold display of both greed and willingness to take advantage of someone's desperation, she demands $400 - which he agrees to.

Even Megan - who previously said that IT WOULD BE COOL IF THE MOON EXPLODED - points out that this is far beyond a bad idea. Defying all logic, Sam points out that $400 for four hours is "too good to be true" as an argument in favor of taking the job rather than getting the hell out of there (pun intended).

We’re roughly one-third of the way through the film before Megan leaves her friend at THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL. With friends like this, who needs enemies?

Roughly 38 minutes into the film, we finally get a brief, bloody act of violence, followed by almost another 37 minutes of Sam wandering around THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL. She unsuccessfully tries to get Megan on the phone a few times, dances around the house with her headphones on, plays pool, looks at some photos in the bottom of a closet, eats some bad pizza and seemingly opens dozens of doors all over the house.

She also turns on the TV briefly, just long enough for a newscaster to tell the audience that the moon should be fully eclipsed just around midnight - half an hour before she asked Megan to pick her up.

After 75 minutes, it seems like the film is finally going to reward the audience's patience with blood sacrifices, stabbings, shootings, and the long-awaited chase through the cemetery. Ten minutes later, Sam does the first unexpected thing in the entire film, though it's only unexpected because there doesn't seem to be any reason why she would think to do what she does.

This is followed by a twist ending that quite simply falls flat. If it were up to me, I would have ended the film 5 minutes earlier.

Then again, I wouldn't have dragged out the first 75 minutes either.

1 comments:

The Warfreak said...

Totally agree. The style is pretty fantastic, but my god was I bored.

BTW; the word verification for my comment is eviash. So close to Evil Ash. Coincidence?