House of the Devil (2009)

In a market that is genuinely oversaturated with the same thing wrapped in a different package, it does get difficult for horror fans to find a low-budget masterpiece that forces their jaws to drop to the floor. In the past, there were plenty of “straight-to-video” gems that still have a special place in horror-film history, but these days, it seems that there are constantly 30 or 40 new “horror films” a week, made by some guy you’ve never heard of, and released by a brand new indie production company that you’ve also never heard of. By looking at most of his catalog, Ti West, a man whose filmography includes gems like Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever, seems like he should fit right into this category along with that kid down the street who made a zombie movie a couple weeks ago. Much to everyone’s surprise though, West’s 2009 opus, The House of the Devil, gives true fans of suspense something that they have deserved for many years, and while it may not have been entirely inventive 30 years ago, to see a film like this come out in the past five years is really something that deserves notoriety.

Existing on a relatively simple plot, you are introduced to Samantha Hughes, played by Jocelin Donahue, a young college student looking for work in order to pay for a new place. After a slow opening sequence, plot exposition suddenly slaps you in the face, and Donahue comes across a flyer with a request horror fans know all too well, “In Need Of Babysitter.” After a bit of frustrating phone tag, our heroine sets out with her best friend to an isolated house far out in the woods. Upon their arrival, the audience is introduced to the owner of the house, Mr. Ullman, played by veteran actor Tom Noonan, whose filmography includes Wolfen, Manhunter, and The Monster Squad. Samantha then finds out that as opposed to housesitting for children, Mr. Ullman is requesting that she look after his mother, whom he swears will not even make herself known, while he and his wife attend a party for the lunar eclipse later that evening. After agreeing to take the job for what most of us would consider an exorbitant amount of money (even more so back in 1980, when the film is set), the Ullmans take their leave. Samantha then informs her friend that drove her all the way out to the house that the owners were uncomfortable with having both of them there, and that she could pick her up later that night. Despite her best friend’s apprehensive assessment of the situation, our protagonist decides to press on. By this point in the film most of the audience is already yelling at Donahue for being gullible enough not to realize a horror movie setup for a satanic cult when it’s waiving a severed goat’s head in her face, but God bless her anyway. Suffice it to say, after a while in the house, things begin to take a very serious turn south for Donahue, and the audience is left sitting face-to-face with every horror movie stereotype of a cult they can imagine. The climax of the film results in a bloody nightmare that, while some will feel it cannot make up for the slow pacing of the rest of the movie, most will agree that the payoff was well worth the wait.

Even with the age old horror setup of “babysitter alone in creepy old house,” House of the Devil does not fail to impress the veterans—or the newcomers—of the genre. Director West brings an almost overwhelming sense of impending doom with every shot after the homeowners leave the house. Menial time wasters like Donahue playing billiards or watching TV only seem to bring you closer and closer to the edge of your seat with no explanation as to why. Tension like this has not had serious play in horror movies since Hitchcock, and it feels wonderful to have it back. Instead of a constant barrage of blood and worn out jump scares, this film gets back to the idea that the actual event is often not half as scary as the buildup. An inventive sequence, in which the main character is doing nothing more than dancing around the almost empty house listening to her portable cassette player, puts the viewer ill at ease because they just “know” that something is going to happen, but the protagonist won’t be able to hear it. A moment in which the babysitter’s friend is doing nothing more than attempting to bum a light off of a random passerby on the road, resulting in her shocking death, succeeds in bringing the audience out of their mellow approach caused by the first half of the film into the uneasy second act. The audience spends the majority of the movie watching an unwitting co-ed inch closer and closer to her doom, knowing that there is nothing anyone can do to save her from this plight.

Everything in the film reeks of the 1980s, and it works so well that it’s hard to believe the film came out three years ago. It seems that the filmmakers thought of everything, from the clothes and the cars, to the hairstyles, to the strong soundtrack, which features the pop/rock hit “One Thing Leads to Another” by London rockers The Fixx. The film also prays on the “satanic panic” shockwave of the 1980s, and while it may be something that is lost on the younger viewers, those who understand the reference will definitely feel a resurgence in the dread of that era. In order to expound upon the myth that the film was in fact made in the early ’80s, the production company decided to run a limited promotion of the film, which appeared on VHS, and in the classic clamshell boxes we all remember from years of pilfering through video rental shelves. The acting also feels very much like that of the early low-budget ’80s horror films we all know and love. Instead of the feeling that these are second rate B-actors, the cast gives off the vibe that they are incredibly savvy with the type of film they’re doing. The characters show some complexity, and during the final payoff all of their motives are explained well. The dialogue and pacing are well done in accordance with the films that West is paying homage.

The actual filming style of The House of the Devil is really something to behold. The influences drawn from classic horror and suspense filmmakers of the time—such as Roman Polanski or John Carpenter—are very evident and are, in fact, welcomed with open arms. Modern horror is populated by directors who want to pay homage to their predecessors, but very few do a good enough job of bringing the spirit of these older films back to the silver screen. Instead of relying on modern conventional filming techniques, West gets back to the way it used to be done, and while this may annoy those who have grown used to crisp picture and stunning sound quality, most of us aren’t looking for the horror equivalent of a Michael Bay film. For example, West opted to make the entire film using a 16mm camera, as opposed to using the current standard of digital filming with additional effects added post-production. If one was to simultaneously play The House of the Devil alongside any one of the countless low-budget horror films of the early 1980s, almost no one would be able to tell the difference in when the two were made. The cinematography also fits seamlessly with its predecessors, with an abundance of lingering shots and extremely slow zoom-ins, as West casts away the current industry standards of fast-paced, “what the hell just happened?” shots that make it seem like the filmmakers drew inspiration from a strobe light. Instead, The House of the Devil relies on building the tension through plot devices and camera work that dwells on a shot so long that the audience feels like they may see too much.

Overall, The House of the Devil is well worth the time of any horror-movie buff interested in finding something new to rekindle the golden age of Hollywood scares. With few to no flaws in its design, few people will be disappointed in the current apex of Ti West’s career. No matter what subgenre of the horror industry you love, there is something that you can get from this movie, be it gore, suspense, or the disturbing nature of the film’s climax. Most any serious fan of the genre would agree that films like these far surpass the never-ending barrage of mind-numbing trite that audiences are inundated with these days. While it may not have all of the bells and whistles that audiences have grown accustomed to over the past decade, this film brings horror back to a time when scares were simply better than they are now.

-Matt

Matt Oakley is a journalist and investigator of the unexplained.  He has written articles for the Politomatic & Culture of Spirits Blogs, as well as Intrepid Magazine, and made appearances on several radio programs.  Oakley currently writes, and is a radio personality for www.gralienreport.com and its sister radio show and podcast The Gralien Report.

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V/H/S (2012)

I will move on to other sections of the horror genre, yet here I am with yet another anthology. This time I’m going a bit more current. Some of you may have heard some buzz about this one. It just hit a very select 15 theaters on Friday and its called V/H/S. It’s received some high praise from critics, which is very unusual for a “found footage” film. It has been available On-Demand since the beginning of September, so I decided to see what all the fuss was about. Needless to say I was skeptical, what with the recent market flood of horror films shot by any Joe Schmo with an HD camera. A quick glance at the Netflix streaming horror section will turn your stomach, in a bad way. This sub-genre of horror has blown up worldwide in the past 5 years. A big reason why is money. The budget of these kinds of films are microscopic when compared to a summer blockbuster. Take Paranormal Activity for example. That film had an estimated budget of $15,000, yet went on to gross nearly $200 MILLION worldwide. That’s an astronomical return on investment that any film studio will take to the bank. While this is an extreme case, even a modest hit in theaters is worth the studio’s effort to promote. Let me assure you that V/H/S is not just a part of the market flood. This film stands out from the other imitators and will actually scare you, or at least give you a good case of the heeby-jeebies.

We open on a group of guys riding around in a car. Just on patrol looking for innocent girls to run up to, grab, flip their shirts up for the camera and sell the tape. It’s some sort of black market deal they’ve been doing for a while. One of their friends says that they can make 20 times that in one night of work. All they have to do is find and steal one particular tape out of this house. Sounds easy, and really shady but they all go along with it anyway. During their search of the house they come across a body of an old man in a recliner in front of a wall of TVs and VCRs, the floor scattered with unmarked VHS tapes. The searching of the tapes makes up the rest of the film as we the viewers see the same thing the thieves are watching. The “editing” of this section of the film is unique since the entire time we are on the main story, we are essentially watching a VHS tape. Piecing together scenes from where people recorded over the tape’s prior video seems disjointed and sloppy, but I think it only adds to the found footage feel of the film. It’s too bad VHS is virtually an obsolete platform, otherwise you could have some fun making copies of this film to blank tapes and handing them out.

Each of the short films has a gimmick of some kind. Contrary to what I expected, not all of this is originally filmed on VHS but for the sake of the main plot, all of the video was transferred to VHS format. The first segment “Amateur Night”,which was filmed entirely with hidden camera glasses. “Second Honeymoon”, by up and coming horror director Ti West, as well as “Tuesday The 17th” were both shot in POV on standard HD hand held cameras. “The Strange Thing That Happened To Emily” is entirely Skype video chat. Finally “10/31/98” is filmed with a camera hidden inside a Halloween costume. With different directors on each of these segments, the film stays fresh. This is where an anthology format helps tremendously. Stretching these POV plots out to 90+ minutes can be a huge mistake, and taking any of these individual stories that far would have surely ruined them.

In “Amateur Night” three guys who get a pair of glasses with a hidden video camera in the bridge decide to have some fun and try to pick up some girls and film them having sex. This part has some real humor in it as these clowns get more and more drunk as the night goes on. When they end up in a hotel room with two girls, things get crazy when one of the girls turns out to be a bit aggressive. The glasses-cam is a pretty sweet idea, but if you got motion sickness during Cloverfield then prepare yourself.

I knew of Ti West, but I’ve never seen anything he’s done up until now. He’s probably best known for the 80’s throwback film House Of The Devil. In “Second Honeymoon” we follow a couple taking a trip through the southwest to the Grand Canyon. While staying at a hotel they are confronted by a mysterious young girl looking for a ride. The couple is a bit unnerved by this, but they go on with their vacation. Unknown to them, however, is that they are having a visitor in their hotel room every night. There’s some good tension here and the POV is very intimate and well done. Some of it reminds me of the POV sections of Kathryn Bigelow’s cruelly underrated film, Strange Days.

“Tuesday The 17th” seems the weak link in the chain for me. Horror cliches abound with 4 kids going up to a lake where some murders supposedly took place years ago. The interesting bit about this section is that the killer, for some unexplained reason, cannot be seen through a camera. This does leave a lot of room for some slight of hand special effects fun and this section works on a slasher film level. By far this is the goriest part of the film, and some people may need to turn away.

“The Strange Thing That Happened To Emily” takes Skype chat to another level. The entire short film is composed of different conversations around a young woman who’s med student boyfriend is out of town. She’s just moved into a new apartment and she thinks it’s haunted. This short has the most in common with films like Paranormal Activity, both in scare style and in content. There is a nice twist in this one and it turns out to be one of the better segments of the film after a really slow start.

“10/31/98” directed by the virtually known, yet commercially unknown directing collective known as Radio Silence, is far and away my favorite segment of the film. Four guys (the camera being hidden inside one guy’s bear costume) get an invite on Halloween to a haunted house party. So in full costume they show up at this well lit house, but nobody seems to be home. They go in and start checking the place out, running into your standard flickering lights and strange noises. It’s all fun and games until they run into something they weren’t supposed to see. The mad dash through the haunted house is a ton of fun to watch, cramming so many “what the fuck!” moments into the last five minutes.

V/H/S’s buzz is well earned. I can only imagine how fun this would be in a theater full of people, but it plays well at home with all the lights out as well. My girl, who was brave and watched this with me, was creeped out for days afterward. If you’re sick of the Paranormal Activity films (the fourth installment hits theaters in a week or so), then you could do a lot worse than V/H/S. I hope they expand the theatrical run to the major markets by Halloween, because I’d love to see this in theaters.

-Wes Kelly

The History of Violence #1: The Devil’s Castle (1896)

It is with great pleasure that I kick off a new series from all contributing editors here at Film’s Okay: The History of Violence: A Compendium of Horror.

Influential. Groundbreaking. Magical. Shocking. Inventive. All of these words can describe the films of George Melies. If you are unfamiliar with this man’s genius and imagination, I highly recommend you take a look for yourself. It won’t take you long, nearly all of his films are less than 10 minutes in length, including this one. The embedded link above is the entire film, though someone saw it fit to add that soundtrack. Melies made films during the birth of cinema from the late 1800s to the 1910s before the Great War, and was more than partially responsible for the medium of moving pictures going from sheer novelty to true art form. His most famous work, A Trip to the Moon, has been paid homage to countless times and even remade into a music video by Smashing Pumpkins.

Melies’s work spanned multiple genres and 100s of films, but today I’m focusing on his contribution to horror. Touted as the very first horror film by many, though who really knows what was made that didn’t survive from that era, The Devil’s Castle (or House of The Devil depending on the translation) is definitely the earliest horror film I’ve seen. Melies stars in the film himself as The Devil who thinks it fun to torment a couple of people who have wandered into his abode. Mephistopheles moves chairs around and makes things appear and disappear, bewildering and frightening his guests.

I’ve read from numerous sources that indicate the intent of this film was merely to amuse, not to frighten. I can see that in some places where chairs are made to disappear when someone is looking to sit down or someone being poked in the butt with a pitchfork. The reason this film deserves its place in horror history is its vampire element. This is the first example I can find in a film of a bat transforming into a man. Melies uses his slight-of-hand technique of stop-motion to create the illusion of this transformation. This film is over 100 years old and the vampire transformation still looks better than most that were made in the 40s and 50s using smoke and cut aways.

George Meiles turned individual frames of film into miniature canvases. There was no possible way he could fathom the inspiration he would give the world as he created these moving images. Pieces of his influence can be seen in almost every movie that comes out today. Vampires remain a tried and true part of horror films, its unfortunate that romance novelists have ditched Fabio for vampires and tainted the genre. Instead of viciously killing people by drinking their blood, vampires now sparkle in the sun and it thunders when they count things. How far we have come.

-Wes Kelly