Don’t Go in There! Or, Ok, Do, Whatever

04/29/2009 4:00 AM |

The House of the Devil
Directed by Ti West

The House of the Devil, a retro-minded horror flick, is all foreplay, an extended tease that tests the limits of audience patience before rushing through its hypergory climax. On the one hand, we should commend horror directors that choose not to revel too long in geysers of blood (for not “Eli Rothing”); on the other, build-up without satisfying denouement is exasperating. Grisly as his film may be at times, West seems uninterested in necessarily cathartic violence; over-concerned with establishing the proper atmosphere, he fails to strike the right balance between the horror film’s dual demands: setup and, pardon me, execution.

The serviceable Jocelin Donahue, fresh off her turn as “Cute Girl” in He’s Just Not That Into You, stars as a coed lusting to escape her slovenly dorm room, her sleep-all-day roommate, the roommate’s stertorous boyfriend, and the couple’s early-morning sexcapades. Desperate for cash, she takes a shadily high-paying babysitting job for an unsettling couple (Mary Woronov, conspicuously done up to resemble Ruth Gordon, and a fabulous Tom Noonan, most recently seen doubling Philip Seymour Hoffman in Synecdoche), who we can safely assume are the Satanists to whom the opening title cards allude. Spoiler alert: guess which character(s)’s house the title refers to!

Writer-director West capably sustains the delicate tonal and stylistic balance that the film adopts — a cross between Rosemary√Ę€™s Baby and Halloween. He also smartly addresses the immediate psychological scarring that would likely result from experiencing a horrific encounter like this film’s eventual blood ritual; it’s something nearly every other horror movie ignores, in the name of “survival instinct”, for the sake of an active Last Girl Standing. But here, flashes of the gruesome experience she just endured, and from which she is still trying to escape, briefly and repeatedly paralyze our heroine, rendering her something like a haunted and hunted Hamlette.

But The House of the Devil‘s central virtue is an appearance by Queen of the Mumblers Greta Gerwig in a supporting role, introduced slurping down soda and sucking pizza grease off her fingers. Her charming, comic performance as the brash, blond and marked-for-death friend is the sweetest treat (love you, Greta!) in this otherwise functional but not terribly remarkable horror entry, an exercise in style devoid of any payoff, let alone a compelling, coherent subtext — a necessary component of any great horror movie.

Remaining screenings are Wed, 4/29 at 11pm and Sat, 5/2 at midnight. Currently without U.S. distribution.