It’s baaaack. Just when you thought it was safe to feed your Blu-ray player, your VHS machine has reemerged from the video graveyard like a zombie seeking fresh brains. And writer/director Ti West has served up the perfect retro feast to appease it.
West’s House Of The Devil is an Eighties-style horror movie that looks like it was shot in the decade of decadence, and it also takes place then, so when Dark Sky Films set about to promote its forthcoming home video release, they decided to go old school by sending 50 journalists the film…on a VHS tape. And not just in a standard package, but that oversized clamshell case that many horror films were packaged in to stand out on the shelves. You know, the ones that grabbed your attention when you were trolling for scare fare in your local video store back in the day. If you’re old enough to remember that. Further, the opening company logo is from vintage video nasty purveyors Gorgon Video, the folks that brought us the infamous Faces Of Death series. (And who are part of MPI, Dark Sky’s parent company.) I should add that 1,000 VHS copies of House Of The Devil will be released for sale to consumers, for those of who you still love your videotapes.
It’s a brilliant marketing ploy. Granted, I’m so used to watching DVD and Blu-ray quality images that the thought of popping a VHS tape in and watching it on my 40″ LCD TV sounded less than appealing. You know what? It looked and sounded pretty good, even with the slightly fuzzy quality that videotape possesses.
House Of The Devil is both a well-crafted nailbiter and a clever homage to babysitter-in-danger movies of the past. It centers around financially imperiled college student Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) who, despite protestations from her worldly and bubbly best friend Megan (Greta Gerwig), takes on a lucrative, last-minute babysitting job for a creepy older couple (Mary Woronov and Manhunter‘s Tom Noonan) who have plans to go out on the night of a lunar eclipse while the husband’s mother stays at home. Naturally, being alone in a big, old country house at night lends Samantha to developing all sorts of paranoia, and that’s exactly how the film builds. You’re waiting for something to happen, waiting for some sign of the alleged parent, waiting to see what sinister fate may befall the heroine. It’s that slowly mounting suspense that gets under your skin.
In the end, West’s film is not about a surprising climax, although it certainly delivers in shock value. The fun is the journey in getting there. We know that the babysitting gig is a bad idea, that the couple are hiding a sinister secret and that something awful is bound to happen. It’s how we get there that counts, and the smart casting, moody, minimalist soundtrack and eerie atmosphere snowball into a satisfying finale with a good post mortem. By the way, did I mention that Dee Wallace has a cameo as a benevolent landlady?
West deserves props for making his film look and sound like it could have been made 25 or 30 years ago. And watching House Of The Devil on VHS did transport me back to my teen years, much of it spent sitting in the dark, watching scary movies and being freaked out, back when this stuff was fresher to me. Good times.