Wednesday, July 14, 2010

THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL (2009) - it's movies like this that makes me think that babysitters should finally unionize

Jocelin Donahue attempts to remain snuggly and plain, yet still quite ravishing, amidst dying trees and decaying architecture

Surprisingly, there are more than a few pizza related horrors in film. For example, in The Slumber Party Massacre, a pizza boy gets his eyes drilled out but still manages to deliver the pies. I guess that “thirty minutes and under” rule is etched into the very soul of a pizza boy. Look no further than those banged up Toyota Corollas with pizza signs, ripping through the neighborhood, rolling through stop signs like nobody’s business. Another example is the “pizza of souls” from A Nightmare On Elm Street Part 4, where instead of being trapped in purgatory, the spirits of the kids are trapped inside chunks of Italian sausage, littered on top of a living pizza. Worst of all is that Noid fucker from the “avoid the Noid” campaign by Domino's. I don’t know why a pizza needs a mascot, but it’s irrelevant, since I will continue to take the advertiser’s advice and “avoid” Mr. Noid and his “pizza” like the plague.

Another entry in the “pizza-sploitation” genre is The House of the Devil, about a babysitter (Jocelin Donahue) that wanders around a big creepy house (Satan isn’t going to be living in a studio apartment in Van Nuys, after all). Of course, all of this aimless exploring leaves her hungry, so she calls the number for a pizza place recommended to her by the owner of this satanic abode. Earlier in the day, her and her best friend (Greta Gerwig) ate some pie at the local college pizza joint. That pizza was sickly and greasy, setting up the audience to be afraid and disgusted by shitty pizza (like Domino's, for example). Unfortunately, the pizza Jocelin receives is drugged through some sort of vast pisan conspiracy to incapacitate vulnerable babysitters. Normally Satan would just throw a roofie in a champagne glass and call it a night, but he has to adjust his methods to fit the clever young people of today (circa early 80’s).

With Jocelin incapacitated, this enables the devil and his buddies (including Mary Woronov) to attempt to sacrifice her in one of those awesome satanic sacrificial rituals so talked about in the eighties by concerned parents and retard bible thumpers. The whole thing is vaguely erotic, but our sympathies remain with Ms. Donahue, as she fights back against the vague denizens of Mr. Beezlescratch and their plot to apparently sacrifice her for some reason or another. She even gets covered in blood in the process, further adding some sanguine tastiness to the erotica quotient.

This satanic panic showdown and Greta’s death scene stand out amidst a lot of wandering around and what have you. The film is clearly trying to build around these two high points. The murder scene is admirably built towards in the preceding fifteen minutes or so, but the build towards the pretty awesome ending is nowhere near as effective. To quote Hitchcock yet again, “the suspense is in the waiting” (or something like that), but just rolling the camera is not good enough. We wait around in the house with Jocelin for no discernible reason, tapping our watches, instead of soaking in a steady build to an impending horror. While I can certainly appreciate endless shots of the interior of a creepy house, I think it might have been a lot more effective if the director had maintained a good sense of the spatial dynamics of the house, and created a compelling reason for the character to search throughout the home. That way, every dark corner and new doorway could’ve created a potential for danger in the audience’s mind. There is also a somewhat forced in tribute to The Fixx with a musical montage that seems vaguely Tarantino-esque. While probably meant to break the tension, it mostly just reminds me of other 80’s one hit wonders (like Katrina and the Waves and their irresistible ode to irrational happiness “Walking on Sunshine”).

Apart from the two scenes previously mentioned, the two ladies are fairly captivating. Ms. Donahue is quite fetching and surprisingly watchable just wandering around from place to place. Her sidekick, Ms. Gerwig, is a beacon of talent that shone through the otherwise shitty filmography of mumblecore hack Joe Swanberg, and similarly does so here in a fairly limited role. Also, I like that the movie is shot in true blue 16mm, and not pushed 17 stops and filtered to shit like most 16mm movies shot today. There are also plenty of zooms, which I enjoy as a sensual aesthetic in and of itself, but here it seems like an attempt to try and mirror horror films of the early 80’s.

I think if you’re gonna make an “homage” to a period of film, you should probably pilfer either the aesthetic or the period itself, but not both. In this sense, The House of the Devil feels like a hipster’s attempt (albeit one with skill and talent) to recreate a period of genre filmmaking, rather than rip it off for his own artistic gain. After all, someone once said that “the good ones homage, but the great ones steal”, or something like that. If you have a true artistic point of view, you’re probably not worried about stealing specific details, knowing that they will always be filtered through the prism of your imagination.

P.S. This was written as part of Stacie Ponder's Final Girl Film Club. Check out her review here


  1. Nicely scribed comment Mr. Duke, although we differ a bit in our reactions to the movie. Nice blog too. I have to figure out how to do all of that spiffy in-the-margins stuff. I'm glad I dropped in. Thanks for inviting me.

  2. Great review! "Pizza-sploitation"! That's true - and it seems so pandering, now that I think about it. "Maybe we should do something with a pizza in this scene. The kids like the pizza, right?" Oh man. Good stuff.

    Though I gotta say, the waiting in 'House of the Devil' had me hooked. It was definitely on the razor's edge of becoming too much, but - to go back to Hitchcock - it's that whole thing about knowing there's a bomb under the table. There's a big Satanic bomb in this house and you know it's gonna go off, but you don't have any of the traditional signifiers that you'd get in most movies as to when - those beats that telegraph when everything is coming. It was the waiting itself that threw that rhythm off for me.

    But it seems we both agree on the death of Greta, which was easily the most effective bit and completely out of nowhere. I was convinced that guy was going to be some sort of a vigilante, looking for his dead sister or something. But nope - Satan.

  3. @John
    It took me a while to fool around and trial and error and what have you. I'm probably not the person to ask with this stuff, though. Thanks for stopping by!

    Blame it on Satan, uh? Why don't you just blame everything on Satan? My shoes don't fit...SATAN! Seriously though, thanks. I guess the suspense of the house just didn't work for me much.

  4. The terror of the pizza started the mechanical wheel of Satan's scheme to lure the young girl into the creepy house -- the shot to Gerwig's head only confirmed our fears of a maniacal outcome -- and then an hour.....This flick is in serious need of a late 2nd act blood orgy.