Colin Timothy Gagnon (sacredspud) wrote,
Colin Timothy Gagnon

31 Days of Halloween: House of the Devil

Sometimes I cannot believe the gullibility of parents.

I'm not talking about adults who are hoodwinked into accepting doctored reportcards or allowing sleepovers without supervision. I'm talking about the rumors propagate through a pop culture resulting in panic over backwards messages in heavy metal music, kidnapped trick-or-treaters, and Dungeons & Dragons players losing their grasp on reality. Sure, bad things happen in the world, and all of these panics are based on real-life incidents, but they are isolated occurrences, often blown embarrassingly out of proportion by the most tenuous evidence. The chances of any individual kid becoming a statistic are so remote.

I realize that superiority comes easy in retrospect, and that we're hardwired to protect our offspring, but sometimes I can't see how otherwise rational people get suckered into believing easily disproven things. It's especially embarrassing now, in 2014, when memes from 4Chan leak onto national news programs, in spite of the fact that we all carry internet-capable (and therefore Snopes-capable) devices in our pockets (which, depending on which parents you trust, is either asking for tumors or perfectly fine).

Most of the hysterias I can think of tie in one way or another back to the rumors of Satanic ritual abuse in the 1980s, which I remember only vaguely. Those wishing to read up on the matter will find ample information online to embarrass them on behalf of their culture. For the rest of you, the term "Satanic panic" refers to a period of time during the '80s when a small number of tragic, real-life incidents of abuse were further perverted by armchair psychology and Christian fundamentalism into a widespread Satanist conspiracy. Suggestible children pointed fingers during interviews, daycares were shuttered, and parents and teachers were suspected.

House of the Devil is not explicitly about the Satanic panic, but was inspired by it. In the film, Samantha Hughes, a college student, takes a babysitting job which she badly needs in order to pay for the apartment she just leased. The job seems sketchy; first her employer, Mr. Ulman, asks to meet her but doesn't show, and then after a later phone conversation, she arrives for work only to learn that she won't be taking care of kids after all. Mr. Ulman explains that the care is actually for his aging mother who doesn't need direct supervision, but it's important that someone be in the house. "Most kids won't even answer the ad if we tell the truth upfront," he explains. Samantha tries to back out, but Ulman offers her more money, eventually enticing her with $400* and pizza money. Ulman and his wife leave.

Samantha orders a pizza and turns on the TV but there's nothing good on, so she begins poking around the house and starts finding evidence that the Ulmans may have murdered the actual owners. She fluctuates between panic and placation until the pizza arrives and turns out to be drugged. She passes out and wakes, gagged and bound to the points of a pentagram. The Ulmans are taking part in a ritual to coincide with tonight's lunar eclipse.

This is not the end of the movie. I won't spoil the end, not because it's brilliant, but because I feel like I shouldn't. It's not a brilliant ending, but it's not unsatisfying, either.

I'm not entirely sure how I should feel about House of the Devil. On one hand, it moves very slowly. It is deliberately calculated to lull you into a false sense of security, show you something really scary, and then quietly make you forget it in order to scare you again later. And mostly that works but it does make the movie drag a little. On the other hand, House of the Devil is one of the most convincing period pieces I've ever seen. The movie was made in 2009, but it looks and sounds, right down to the opening titles and the end credits, like a product of the early '80s. It's so well done that we had to pause the movie to double check its release date. Genre stalwarts Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov remember the territory well and portray the Ulmans beautifully (horribly?). Jocelin Donahue finds the right note for Samantha, and the only tonal misstep in the entire movie is Samantha's friend Megan, whose vocal delivery is straight out of 2009. Otherwise, to fans of early slasher films House of the Devil feels like home.

So, I guess the question is, is the exercise worth it? Usually movies that ape the style of an earlier period are doing it to be funny; Larry Blamire's Lost Skeleton of Cadavra films and Oingo Boingo's Forbidden Zone come to mind, but House of the Devil keeps its tongue well away from its cheek. Filmed without the created nostalgia, I don't think this movie would have held my interest. On the other hand, I've been known to sit through the artiest of art movies because sometimes you just want to see a man with a horse head open a desk drawer which appears to be filled with peas and mayonnaise, and pull out a fetus. I appreciate House of the Devil on a technical level, but a second viewing is not a priority. The person who watched it with me was bored.

Netflix has it to stream, but apparently it was also available on VHS in a big ol' clamshell case, which is a really nice touch.

Here's the trailer.

* The soundtrack prominently features "One Thing Leads to Another" by The Fixx which came out in August of 1983. The movie could easily have taken place in autumn of that year, which makes Samantha's wages $957 in 2014 dollars for one night's work. Nice work if you can get it. Without getting killed, I mean.
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