House of the Devil, The (US - BD RA)
Gabe visits yet another horrific homestead in this oldschool throw-back
Samantha Hughes (Jocelin Donahue) is a college girl looking to move into her first apartment, away from her dimwit dorm-mate, but she needs to gather up a first month’s rent. Fortune shines when Samantha discovers an ad placed by a couple looking to pay top dollar for a one night babysitter. After some weird phone interactions with the man of the house (Tom Noonan), Samantha’s best friend Megan insists on tagging along, and when they arrive they discover that the family isn’t actually looking for a babysitter as much as someone to watch over their deranged grandmother. Things get weirder from there.
The House of the Devil is probably the most stylistically accurate homage to early ‘80s, non-slasher horror I’ve ever seen, and I mostly mean this as a positive note. At the very least writer/editor/director Ti West exacts the general look and feel of the era, with a little help from the period clothing and music, and he gathers about 70% of the raw feel of the early home video era. There are unneeded slow zooms, static shots that are made dynamic through editing, and a dingy lighting scheme I assumed had been lost to digital photography, and even the video box art appears to have bled from the years of Friday the 13th and Raiders of the Lost Ark. The slow burn style, moody atmosphere and general lack of gore more generally equates the earlier ‘70s era (there’s a whole lot of Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Amityville Horror influence here), and the likable and personable characters are also out of character for the ‘80s, but this is mostly a marked bonus. This relative realism doesn’t always gel with the pointed period backing, but it’s certainly interesting to watch West give it the old college try, and the overall tone is in-keeping with the director’s apparently intended homage.
The slow burn aspect will definitely rub some horror fans the wrong way, and it’s an understandable reaction, especially in the face of modern spectacle based horror. There’s a whole lot of suspenseful track laid to a pretty disappointing and brief climax, and the unease created during these largely inert scenes actually work to jangle the nerves more than the obviously ‘frightening’ moments at the tail end of the experience. The more abruptly horrific stuff that closes the film comes too hard and fast, and diametrically opposes to the more perfected build-up scenes, which leaves the final product very unbalanced. The film’s most positive first run reviews have compared House of the Devil to Roman Polanski’s more celebrated horror/thriller work, specifically Repulsion, The Tennant and Rosemary’s Baby. The character building and the quality of the actor’s performances are high quality for a low budget genre piece, which help the early spooky section of the experience, and make the Polanski comparisons more than apt, even if the visuals and final act tone don’t quite work.
House of the Devil is meant to look like it was made in the early ‘80, so probably videophiles won’t be particularly impressed with the results. Like Rob Zombie’s Halloween films, House of the Devil is shot using a decidedly lo-fi technique called 16mm film. Those in the know probably know that 16mm isn’t quite up to high definition standards. There is a whole lot of grain on the print, and it’s all meant to be there. This film doesn’t alter the picture to make it look more aged like Black Dynamite or Grindhouse, but does use a generally warmer pallet, even-handed contrast and darker all around photography, so colours aren’t particularly vibrant or punchy. The lower resolution film plays occasional havoc with the overall clarity of the colours, but there isn’t a lot of bleeding, and excepting some very dark shots the grain doesn’t detract too much from things. Details are plenty sharp, and solidly consistent throughout, again, based on the format’s limits. The film’s climax is a little more stylistic than the rest of the film, featuring more stark contrasts, and definitively brighter reds.
House of the Devil’s audio mix matches the video in that it’s relatively old-school, consisting mostly of center channel events of a less than ‘thick’ variety. The sound design is stylistically simplistic in that there aren’t too many dueling elements at play. Music or effects or dialogue are given precedence per scene, and are generally pretty clean and clear. The box are reads Dolby Digital 5.1, but the actual disc features a lossless DTS-HD 5.1 as its lead track. The film’s music is normally a little more symphonic than the ‘80’s genre work usually tried for, but the pop soundtrack features plenty of the era’s ‘best’. The music is definitely the track’s most expressive element, including those classic tracks. I’m guessing most of us haven’t heard The Fixx’s ‘One Thing Leads to Another’ sound quite this pure or poppy. The title cue is a perfect mood setter, but does sound a little too much like The Car’s ‘Moving in Stereo’ to truly adore. The LFE track is certainly effective, especially at the moment where the truth of the set up is revealed via pumping beats, and a huge throat chanting presence. The disc also features a PCM 2.0 track, which sounds more or less the same as the 5.1 track, so viewers looking to complete the early ‘80s experience can feel a little more honest.
The Blu-ray’s extras start with two commentary tracks. The first track features director Ti West and actress Jocelin Donahue making the best of the time, but lose points for awkward blank spaces. The second track features West, producers Larry Fessenden, Peter Phok, and sound designer Graham Reznick. This track is more technical minded, obviously, but is still pretty fun, up tempo, and a bit more full-bodied. There’s a lot of repetition between tracks (West dominates both), so despite Donahue’s occasional sweetness, I recommend the second track to those only planning on listening to one. The technical bits are solid enough entertainment, and it’s amusing to hear the filmmakers point out their many and varied homage.
Next up are three deleted/extended scenes (6:40, SD), all presented in a rough format, and temp audio. These scenes are fine, but the first two, two sides of a phone conversation, would’ve bogged down the already somewhat overdrawn first act, and the third doesn’t really have much context. ‘In the House of the Devil’ (13:30, SD) is a rather rough and raw look behind the scenes, entirely made up of on-set footage, most of which is presented without any context. ‘Behind the House of the Devil’ (4:40, SD) is a more watchable making-of EPK that delves into the themes and inspirations behind the film, at least briefly. Things end with a trailer.
The House of the Devil is a more respectable exercise in restraint than a good film, but it does have its moments, though they mostly take place during the uneventful first two acts. It’s certainly worth seeing for fans of ‘70s and ‘80s horror, especially those that have found themselves growing numb to more modern horror sensibilities, but it’s not going to reignite anyone’s love for the genre. I recommend a rent, but the films tone doesn’t lend itself to massive re-watching. This Blu-ray looks as good as a high definition transfer can when taken from a 16mm source print, and the DTS-HD soundtrack works through the source limitations pretty well. Extras are minimal, but the dueling commentary tracks are entertaining and informative enough. The pop-up menu is worth noting, for its clever look, which is not something I think I’ve ever said in a Blu-ray review.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 2nd February 2010
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English, PCM 2.0 English
Subtitles: English SDH and Spanish
Extras: Director and Actor Commentary, Director, Producers and Sound Designer Commentary, Deleted Scenes, In the House of the Devil, Behind the House of the Devil, Trailer
Easter Egg: No
Director: Ti West
Cast: Jocelin Donahue, Tom Noonan, Mary Woronov, Greta Gerwig, Dee Wallace
Length: 95 minutes
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