CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL (2009) (Available on DVD)
by Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares
(THE SCENE: a dimly lit living room. MICHAEL ARRUDA and L.L. SOARES sit in front of a TV, eating popcorn.)
LS: Let me get this straight. We’re here because someone hired us to babysit???
MA: That would be funny, wouldn’t it? Imagine the parents’ surprise when they open the door and see us!
LS: No, thank you! I don’t want to be babysitting no kids!
MA: We’d have the best horror movie line-up, that’s for sure. Okay, little Johnny, now it’s time for HALLOWEEN (1978).
LS: That’s awful! Imagine doing that to a little tyke! What’s wrong with you? You gotta show TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974) first, then HALLOWEEN!
MA: Of course. Anyway, we’re not babysitting. We’re here because this is the setting for today’s movie, THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL (2009).
LS: Sounds scary!
MA: It does, doesn’t it? Let’s find out just how scary. (Aims remote at TV and shuts it off).
LS: What did you do that for? We were just getting to the best part!
MA: But there was nothing on. It was just static.
LS: You mean that wasn’t POLTERGEIST (1982) ?
LS: I thought that scene was longer than I remembered it! Anyway, ready to start?
MA: Sure. In THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, a devil worship thriller written and directed by Ti West, a young college student named Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) is looking for money to pay for her new apartment. She answers a babysitting ad that promises to pay her top dollar for just one night’s work. Her best friend Megan (Greta Gerwig) drives her out to the house, which is deep in the middle of nowhere (of course), and once there, they are greeted by an odd, somewhat creepy man named Mr. Ulman (Tom Noonan).
Mr. Ulman informs Samantha that the job really involves sitting for his elderly mother, and that he wasn’t honest about this tidbit of information initially, because he didn’t think she’d have taken the job if he had told her the truth. Samantha says she’s not interested, but Mr. Ulman offers her $400, and since she is so desperate for the money, she says yes.
(Behind them, a door opens and an OLD LADY with a walker slowly emerges and enters the room.)
After Megan leaves the house, Samantha meets Mrs. Ulman (Mary Woronov) who is ever creepier than her husband. Mr. Ulman tells Samantha to make herself comfortable, and that it will probably be a very easy job, as most likely she won’t even see his elderly mother. He wants Samantha there only if there’s an emergency, which he says is highly unlikely. The Ulmans leave for their engagement, and Samantha prepares to spend the night in the dark house with the unseen elderly mother upstairs.
This is the premise for THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, and of course, since it’s called THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, we know there is something more sinister going on than just watching old grandma get her 40 winks! Too bad we have to wait nearly the entire movie to find out just what that sinister thing is.
LS: Yeah, there is an odd pacing to this one. For the longest time, nothing really happens. And then when it does, it’s very sudden and short. I have to admit, when this movie ended, I wasn’t sure what I thought of it. In some ways I liked the tone, the feel of it. In another way, I thought it was a letdown.
(Behind them, the OLD LADY slowly makes her way with walker towards kitchen to the left. She is moving at a snail’s pace, and has hardly moved at all.)
MA: I didn’t like THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL at all. It got off to a poor start as it declared right off the bat that it was “based on true unexplained events.” Yes, it’s the dreaded “based on a true story! routine” Ugh!
That being said, I liked the character of Samantha a lot, and I thought Jocelin Donahue turned in a very good performance. I also liked Greta Gerwig as Megan. The acting here was fine, and even better, the writing by Ti West was excellent. The dialogue was witty and refreshing, and the set-up just odd enough to catch my interest.
LS: Yeah, I thought Jocelin Donahue was really cute and very believable as Samantha. She seemed very genuine.
MA: Absolutely! This was one of the strengths of the movie. I thought most of the characters, including the oddball Ulmans, were very believable.
LS: And I’m a big fan of Greta Gerwig, who is kind of the biggest star to come out of the whole “Mumblecore” movement in independent film. These are like low-budget movies about 20-somethings, mostly talking and dealing with relationships, but she really stands out in films like HANNAH TAKES THE STAIRS (2007) and BAGHEAD (2008), and she’s good here as well. She’s the one actress from that scene whose career seems to be taking off. She was even in a more mainstream film this year, GREENBERG, with Ben Stiller.
MA: The sense of dread is set up very well. Earlier in the film, when Samantha calls the phone number on the babysitting ad, the man’s voice on the other end of the line is awkward and weird, and then when she goes to meet him for an interview, he doesn’t show up. Later he calls and apologizes, but there’s just something unsettling about the whole thing that makes you wish she would just hang up and say she’s not interested.
LS: Almost the whole movie is just one big moment of dread, stretched out to 95 minutes. In a weird way, it works. But not completely.
MA: Yes, you’re right. The movie nails the “sense of dread” card. The build-up is great. It’s too bad the pay-off is so lame. Maybe the movie should be re-titled THE HOUSE OF DREAD. Or better still THE HOUSE WHERE THE DEVIL IS SUPPOSED TO SHOW UP BUT DOESN’T.
(A DEVIL with a pitch fork, horns, and a tail runs by in the background, hissing at the OLD LADY as he passes her. She hardly notices the demon.)
MA: Things get even better when Samantha finally meets the Ulmans. Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov are very good as Mr. and Mrs. Ulman. I liked Noonan a lot. There is something so very unnerving about him, but in a fresh, odd sort of way. He’s not your typical cliché haunted house character. He’s unsettling because the things he says are believable, yet the way he says them, the way he acts, you just don’t feel right about him. Yet he’s not so blatantly obvious that you run out the door. So when Samantha agrees to stay, it’s not a decision where you go “Why in the world is she staying there?” You’d stay too.
So, the acting and the writing were all very good, and the set-up to something scary and sinister was great.
LS: Noonan and Woronov are kind of like cult movie royalty. Noonan, who’s so tall and creepy, is probably most famous for playing Francis Dollarhyde in the movie MANHUNTER (1986), which was later remade in 2002 as RED DRAGON (with Ralph Fiennes in the Noonan role). MANHUNTER is best known for being the first movie to feature Hannibal Lecter (Brian Cox played him in MANHUNTER, before Anthony Hopkins made the character iconic in 1991’s SILENCE OF THE LAMBS). Noonan has also been in lots of arthouse films over the years.
(HANNIBAL LECTER exits kitchen with a plate of body parts.)
LECTER (to OLD LADY, who still hasn’t made it half-way across the room yet): Care to join me for dinner? You might be good with ketchup.
OLD LADY: Out of my way! I need to use the john!
LECTER: You’re heading towards the kitchen.
OLD LADY: This is my house and I know where the john is! Get the hell out of my way!
(LECTER shrugs and exits with his plate of food.)
LS: Mary Woronov is pretty iconic herself. She’s been in everything from Andy Warhol movies (1966’s CHELSEA GIRLS) to Roger Corman classics like the original DEATHRACE 2000 (from 1975) and ROCK AND ROLL HIGH SCHOOL (1979). She’s literally been in over a hundred movies since the 60s.
So it’s nice to see her and Noonan here. Even if they don’t get a chance to really develop their odd, creepy characters, who seem like relatives of the ADDAMS FAMILY.
And don’t forget about A.J. Bowen as the Ulmans’ son, Victor. I thought he was very good in this movie, too. And he’s even scarier than his parents.
MA: So, what’s the problem with this movie? In a nutshell? NOTHING friggin happens!!! The set-up is great, but in order for it to be worth anything, there’s got to be a payoff, and there’s isn’t any, at least not at the same level as the rest of the movie.
There is one shocking moment in the movie, a murder that comes half way through the story. This moment, albeit brief, works well because it delivers a jolt, but that’s it folks. Take my word for it. There’s nothing else! Nada!
Samantha walks around the house in the dark. Oooh! Spoooky!. Samantha dances to music. Weird. Samantha eats pizza. Boring. Will something friggin happen to Samantha already? Each time I kept expecting, this is it, this is the pay-off, and each time, nothing!
LS: Yeah, this movie goes an awful long time before anything horrific happens.
MA: And when the big payoff finally does come, when Samantha finally has to deal with something more serious than watching television, it really is a major letdown. That’s it? Major, major disappointment.
In the annals of devil worship movies, this one doesn’t even register. It’s a dud. And its ending is horrible.
LS: I dunno. I kind of like the ending.
MA: I’m talking about the very ending, the last scene. You liked that? Haven’t we seen that gimmick a thousand times?
The movie also suffers from HALLOWEEN II (1981) syndrome.
(MICHAEL MYERS emerges from the shadows and swings his knife at the slow-moving OLD LADY, but misses.)
LS: He’s so slow he can’t even catch up to an old lady with a walker! (MICHAEL MYERS buries his face in his hands in shame and exits.)
MA: In that famously bad sequel, the hospital in its story was nearly empty, thanks to a low budget. Here, Samantha is on a college campus that seems to be abandoned. What, did they think they were filming, I AM LEGEND again? There’s shots of her dorm, the student union, and the campus, and there’s barely a soul around. Is that Vincent Price and Charlton Heston I see loitering in the background?
(MA & LS look over their shoulders in anticipation. Neither star enters the room.)
OLD LADY: What the hell are you two looking at? Stop staring! (She flips them the bird)
MA: Jeesh! She’s scarier than the movie!
LS: And we’re seeing her more now than we ever do in the movie. I’m not even sure if we see the elderly mother AT ALL in the movie? Was that her toward the end, or some kind of demon? I’m not sure!
MA: I’m not sure either. At first, for obvious reasons, I thought it was the elderly mother, but, if so, she looks like a demon. It was unclear. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s a demon, and there is no elderly mother. The fact that I’m guessing here about what should have been the most important part of a film called THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL says something about what’s wrong with this movie!
LS: Getting back to what you were talking about, I found the lack of people in the early parts of the movie really strange, too. Almost the first half hour of the movie is Samantha wandering around the campus, and I thought it was really strange that there wasn’t anyone else walking around. It’s like the filmmakers got access to this college during a time when it was closed, and they didn’t bother to hire any actors to play students. It didn’t seem realistic that Samantha would have all of the campus environs to herself.
MA: The film also takes place in the 1980s, I guess because it’s supposed to capture the feel of some of the 1980s horror movies. Big deal. If that’s what the filmmakers were aiming for, they failed. The best part of it taking place in the 1980s was that we got to see an old-fashioned rotary phone. Oooh!!!
LS (with wavy 80s style hair and clothing): And don’t forget the Walkman she listens to a lot. We get some cool 80s songs like “One Thing Leads to Another” by The Fixx.
MA (also with wavy hair and a mustache, and a Hawaiian shirt a la Tom Selleck): Yes, I did like the Fixx song. Can’t take that away from the movie.
I also thought Samantha was way too nosy inside the Ulmans’ house. All she has to do is relax, watch TV and eat pizza for a few hours. But no, she’s got to snoop around the house, search the basement, break a vase. Meddling kid!
LS: Yeah, she’s annoying and nosy, but I found that believable. For some reason I actually liked the scene where she is listening to her Walkman and dancing around the house.
I did think it was odd that, soon afterwards, she starts exploring the house and the various rooms, but with a big knife in her hand. I know the house is scary, but what if poor grandma came out of her room and saw that? It might give her a heart attack, this strange girl wandering around with a knife.
OLD LADY: That’ll be the day! What’s a knife going to do against a shot gun, huh, wise-ass? (OLD LADY finally exits living room.)
MA: At least that would have been something! Something happening at least! Actually, that wouldn’t have been a bad little twist, but of course, that’s not what this movie is about. This movie is about the devil, and devil worshippers, or at least that’s what its title implies. It’s really about a college student who’s depressed and sad and only has one friend to call when she’s stuck at a house that she wants to leave, and when she can’t reach that friend, she’s out of luck. Here’s a new title: THE HOUSE OF THE SAD, LONELY COLLEGE STUDENT.
There were also some very dark scenes inside the house, which were supposed to be creepy, and they were, but they also made it really difficult to see anything. Not fun.
There’s also some silliness in the plot about a lunar eclipse. Supposedly that’s why this night is so important for the devil worshippers. Devil worshippers? Oh yeah. Remember them?
Why aren’t I talking more about the devil worshippers and what they were up to in this movie, you ask? Hmm. Maybe because they show up for about 3 seconds. Let’s put it this way. If I knew what they were all about, I’d talk about it. I guess they like lunar eclipses or something. Want to see a movie about the moon? Go with Lon Chaney Jr. and a full moon instead!
LS: The lunar eclipse was obviously important for some satanic ritual. But it did seem silly here.
MA: THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL is a movie that sets itself up well. It builds around a creepy story that is somewhat suspenseful at first, and gradually increases its sense of foreboding, but ultimately, it’s a story that goes nowhere. It’s a major disappointment. I give it 1 Knife. Don’t bother!
LS: I liked the acting and I liked the tone of it. And some of the camerawork did remind me of old 80s horror films (like the opening credits, and some shots of a clock in the center of the campus). I agree that not enough happens, but I didn’t find it boring at all, and I actually liked the odd, subtle ending.
For some reason, this movie was getting a lot of buzz. I don’t really understand why. It’s not shocking or all that scary. I liked it better than you did, though, and I’ll give it 2 knives. I liked the feel of it, but overall it was a little disappointing.
MA: I would have liked it better if it had been called THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL DOG. It would have satisfied my snack craving, at least.
LS: Speaking of snacks, we’ve finished this popcorn. You think there’s anything else to munch on around this place?
MA: I don’t know. Let’s go check out the kitchen.
(LS & MA approach kitchen door, but as they open it—.)
OLD LADY’S VOICE: Don’t you know how to knock? I’m on the john!
MA: Er, that’s a chair with a hole in it.
LS: Get some glasses, you old bag! I bet you’re sitting in the sink.
OLD LADY: Where’s my shot gun?
MA: I think that’s our cue to leave. That’s it for this week’s Cinema Knife Fight.
LS: Thanks for joining us. We’ll see you again next week.
OLD LADY: WHERE’S MY DAMN SHOTGUN!
LS: Try looking on the roof!
(MA & LS exit.)
© Copyright 2010 by Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares
Michael Arruda gave HOUSE OF THE DEVIL – One Knife
LL Soares gave this movie – 2 Knives