Saturday, April 25, 2009

Tribeca ’09: The House of the Devil

Those kids in the 80’s were a mess. They were always listening to their Walkmen and getting killed by Satanic cults. At least that is the cheesy world of 1980’s horror movies Ti West faithfully recreates in The House of the Devil (trailer here), a Midnight selection of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

Samantha is a hardworking college student, but she can’t be too bright. To earn money for her first apartment, she agrees to spend the night in an old dark house under highly dubious conditions. Hired in an odd manner by the Ulmans, an obviously weird couple, to “baby-sit” for their unseen shut-in mother, Samantha should have bolted as soon as she saw their well-secluded, ultra-gothic house. The fact that her employers have such a hot date purposely scheduled on the evening of a full lunar eclipse might also raise some suspicions, but Mr. Ulman is offering several hundred dollars for a few hours work.

How creepy are the Ulmans? Well, they are played by Tom Noonan, the “Tooth Fairy” serial killer in the original Hannibal Lecter film, Manhunter, and Mary Woronov, the cult star associated with the films of Andy Warhol and Paul Bartel. Would you stay in their house during the darkest night of the year?

Of course, Samantha starts poking into dark basements and the like, generating plenty of gotcha jolts, which is fine as far as it goes. Rather than tweak the conventions of the 80’s films that inspired it, House follows them slavishly, from the dubious “based on a true story” opening claim to the ambiguous ending. However, the retro looking titles really are perfect. Seeing them roll makes you expect to hear Crow and Tom Servo start to riff.

House benefits from the easy likability of its lead, Jocelin Donahue, who shows a young Karen Allen quality as Samantha, which is definitely a good thing. As expected, Noonan and Woronov are also appropriately sinister as the Ulmans. It is also cool to see Dee Wallace Stone (fondly remembered for E.T. and perhaps more applicably Critters, Cujo, and The Howling) essentially in a cameo role as the “Landlady.”

Ultimately, one wishes House had been more ambitious or satirical in its approach, but at least it has a distinct nostalgic appeal. It will bring back memories for many children of the 80’s of those cheap chills we watched on cable or at second-run theaters. It screens at Tribeca tonight, April 26th, 29th, and May 2nd.