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'The House of the Devil'

It's the baby-sitting gig from hell, and writer-director Ti West and star Jocelin Donahue make it a devil of a good time.

October 30, 2009|Robert Abele

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and with "The House of the Devil," a baby-sitter-meets-evil gem of a movie, up-and-coming writer-director Ti West ("The Roost") shrewdly uses our entire sense memory of horror movie experiences to bring his seen-it-all audience to a jittery state of unnerving, shoe-dropping anticipation.

And in this woeful era of show gore and telegraphed shocks, West's faith in the old-school virtues of deliberately paced, nervous-laughter-inducing creep should be championed right alongside the current vogue for bump-in-the-night sleeper "Paranormal Activity."

Fashioned like an unearthed scare flick from 1982, "House" has plenty of movie-love fun with freeze-frame titles, zoom lenses and a liberal use of crescendoing strings. But it's an opening crawl about satanic cults -- promising a yarn based on "true unexplained events" -- that's the first sign of West's manipulative chops: Tell us what we're in for, so our foul imagination runs wild before anything happens.

And initially little does "happen" as feathered-hair heroine Sam (the appealing Jocelin Donahue) wanders her wintry, empty college campus, worrying about money, hanging with her chatty friend Megan (Greta Gerwig, doing her best P.J. Soles), crying in a bathroom stall, and answering an ad for a sitter.

Patience is rewarded, though, when Megan drives Sam to the gig and what looms at the end in the darkness is a spooky Victorian home and the tall, gaunt, black-clad figure of Tom Noonan sporting a cane. His Mr. Ulman hesitantly explains that there's no baby, just his "able-bodied" elderly mother, and a few hundred more dollars in it for Sam if she agrees to stay. Extra fretting comes courtesy of a grim-faced, black-fur-sporting Mary Woronov as Mrs. Ulman, stroking Sam's hair while she compliments her on her looks.

Once this gothic pair and Megan leave, what ensues is a modest tour de force of voyeuristic, atmospheric tension, with Sam's every time-killing move -- ordering pizza, watching TV, dancing while listening to her Walkman -- a mini-drama of unforeseen dread.

West's assured way with widescreen framing, long takes and silences followed by sharp if explainable noise are almost cruelly funny in their heart-stopping pleasures. But they invariably hint that when stuff goes down -- and it does, violently -- something will also be lost in all the bloodletting. Which is probably why, once the wicked play their hand, West wisely rushes to his agreeably finger-on-nose conclusion. Because with a throwback corker like this, the devil you don't know is always much more effective.



'The House

of the Devil'

MPAA rating: R for some bloody violence

Running time: 1 hour,

33 minutes

Playing: At the Laemmle's Sunset 5 in West Hollywood

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