Favorites: The House of the Devil

The House of the Devil (2009)
Written and directed by Ti West
Produced by Josh Braun, Larry Fessenden, Roger Kass, Peter Phok, Derek Curl, Badie Ali, Hamza Ali, Malik B. Ali, Greg Newman
Starring Jocelin Donahue, Tom Noonan, Greta Gerwig, Mary Woronov, A.J. Bowen

“That which is new can only be effective in the context of what is old and familiar.”

–Krzysztof Penderecki

They’re almost as often botched as assayed: period pictures representing the 1980s seem unattainable undertakings for millenial filmmakers, their generation virtually defined by inauthenticity and the pervasive nescience of their precious sociocultural tabula rasa. At worst, even the era’s trappings are inadequately recreated: neon rather than pastel accents and accoutrements predominate in ’82; leg warmers are garbed glaringly as late as ’88; working- and middle-class households enjoy amenities of appliances and entertainments they couldn’t possibly yet afford; no residua of the ’70s are observable, be they ill-conceived drapes of pea-green and brown paisley or stripes, tacky decals, or enduring, smutty shag sprawling wall to wall. Worse, when an informed crew have replicated interiors, vesture, chattels, etc. so well as to excite the very zeitgeist for those of us who remember, the fastidious facade is compromised as soon as anyone in the cast verbalizes, shattering the simulation with either parlance scripted in poor imitation or a contemporary vernacular voiced via uptalk and other insufferable habitudes.

West and his crew, especially respective production and costume designers Jade Healy and Robin Fitzgerald, and art directior Chris Trujillo, clothe his slow, staid exploitation of the bygone satanic panic with a rare verisimilitude to polish what may be the sole American coruscation of its genre produced during the aughts. Its scenario would in lesser hands seem like hackery; repulsed by her slatternly roommate and therefore desperate to secure her first month’s rent for an ample apartment, a cute student (Donahue) leaps at the opportunity to babysit for an elderly couple (Noonan, Woronov) with an avidity abated by the peculiarity of their circumstances, but her dubiety and suppressed suspicions prepare her neither for their grisly intrigues nor the Luciferian fate engrossed upon a lunar emersion following the night’s total eclipse. Sagely refraining from complete pastiche, West instead incorporates techniques of the grindhouse era into his nearly elliptic idiom, as frames frozen during opening credits, lingering close-ups of profiles, and zooms of varied speeds that amplify tension, stress vehemence and arrest the eye. He’s incapable of a poor shot, maintaining a steady pace by cutting his own 16 mm footage with craft of equal excellence deserved by his script, complete for its shades of portent and playful, preordained protagonist’s exploration of her employers’ tastefully lavish mansion. Notwithstanding a few anachronous elements (a payphone accepting quarters, latter-day faucets and car alarm), the production’s design is immersive, and complemented by fantastic faux newscasts and Mike Armstrong’s memorable opening theme. Only a few lines delivered with present intonation remind one fleetingly of Donahue’s contemporariness; hers is an achingly lovely post-Celtic ethnotype as becoming to the era as anything she wears or inhabits, all but perfect in the role and upstaged in their every shared scene by indie darling Gerwig as her cheeky best friend. They’re foils for Noonan and Woronov, veterans of creepy roles who expertly enact both gentility and an initially subtle, subjacent menace. Disregard naysayers who misrepresent West’s cunningly cultivated suspense as longueur, omitting a few of the best jump scares at which you’ll ever flinch, and that his prolonged preludes lead to a severely stridulous, sanguineous climax. For both, Jeff Grace’s score and adjunct music by second unit director and sound designer Graham Reznick only intensifies and never disrupts disquiet. His Anglophone coevals can’t compete, for West apprehends that the devil’s in the details, and he, Reznick, et al. are just old enough to faithfully recall and preserve the ethos of ’83, when society was still sufficiently sane and cohesive to judge these atrocities shocking.

Recommended for a double feature paired with The City of the Dead, Rosemary’s Baby, or Black Christmas.