The American Society of Cinematographers

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Return to Table of Contents May 2010 Return to Table of Contents
Iron Man 2
Presidents Desk
DVD Playback
The African Queen
House of the Devil
John A. Alonzo
ASC Close-Up
The House of the Devil (2009)
Blu-ray Edition
1.78: 1 (16X9 enhanced)
Dolby Digital 5.1
Dark Sky Films/MPI Home Video, $34.98

Babysitters in peril have been reliable horror-movie protagonists since Halloween (1978) and When a Stranger Calls (1979), but rarely have they been put through the traumas faced by college sophomore Samantha in The House of the Devil. The time is the early 1980s: Samantha desperately needs rent money, and she finds a good lead when she answers a babysitting ad placed by the mysterious Mr. Ulman, who agrees to pay her $400 for one night’s work. The catch is Samantha will not actually be “babysitting” — she will be keeping an eye on Ulman’s elderly mother-in-law in a remote house far from civilization. Samantha takes the job but eventually realizes Ulman’s bait-and-switch is not the only thing wrong with the gig; his house has secrets more deadly and terrifying than an invalid, old woman, secrets that may or may not have something to do with the supernatural and devil worship.  

To describe any more of the plot of the film would be to rob the reader of the pleasures of one of the creepiest American horror films of the past several years. The movie is the progeny of writer-director Ti West and production company Glass Eye Pix, a New York-based outfit run by writer-director-producer-editor-actor Larry Fessenden. Neither West nor Fessenden is a household name (unless your household subscribes to Fangoria), but working both separately and as a team they have been responsible for many notable horror films in recent years. Fessenden started Glass Eye in 1985 with the intention of producing not only his own films, but also those of younger directors looking for a break; the result has been a steadily building catalog of more than two dozen fiercely independent and personal horror movies, as well as acclaimed non-horror releases such as Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy.

West is one of Fessenden’s most talented discoveries, a director who is a fan of the horror genre but not a slave to it. Films like The Roost (2005) and Trigger Man (2007), both Glass Eye productions, build on West’s obvious passion for film history but take off in idiosyncratic, original directions. After an unpleasant experience working for a larger company on Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever (2009), West returned to Glass Eye to create his most distinctive film yet — The House of the Devil, which contains echoes of Roman Polanski, Sam Raimi and other horror auteurs but is not a pastiche. Using long takes, naturalistic performances and impeccably executed zooms and tracking shots, West and his collaborators build a palpable sense of suspense that pays off spectacularly.

The key to the film is the convincing world it creates long before any hint of horror enters the story; like John Carpenter’s Halloween, the movie carefully constructs a detailed yet almost mundane suburban milieu — a setting in which the intrusion of violence is all the more affecting. Director of photography Eliot Rockett, who previously collaborated with West on Cabin Fever 2 and with Glass Eye Pix on Liberty Kid (2007), achieves a perfect balance between naturalism in the film’s early scenes and stylization in its more terrifying later sequences. Shooting in Super-16mm with Fuji stock, Rockett’s images have a slightly grainy, desaturated quality that makes the action feel more real and immediate and places the film squarely in the pre-digital tradition of 1970s and 1980s low-budget shockers. The result is a period piece that not only recreates its time period, but also feels like a movie from that time period.

The Blu-ray edition of The House of the Devil nicely replicates both the grain structure of the theatrical-release prints and the broad range of the palette, which veers from muted yellow, brown and green tones at the beginning to rich blacks and reds in the blood-drenched finale. The surround mix is excellent as well, with fine use of subtle effects in the rear channels to increase the film’s sense of dread and unease. There are plenty of anecdotes about the creation of the soundtrack on one of the disc’s two commentary tracks, which features sound designer Graham Reznick, producer Peter Phok, Fessenden and West. Their track is a hilarious but genuinely useful tutorial in how to make an ambitious horror film on an 18-day schedule; a second audio narration by West and star Jocelyn Donahue is equally enlightening. Additional special features include just under seven minutes of deleted scenes, a theatrical trailer and two featurettes. The 13-minute “In the House of the Devil” consists of behind-the-scenes footage shot by Reznick, while the five-minute “Behind the House of the Devil” is a brief but surprisingly informative collection of interviews with West and his cast. A standard-definition version of the DVD with all the same extra features and a comparably solid transfer is available for $27.98.

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