Seeing as the last two entries were Michigan-themed, there’s an overwhelming urge to tenuously link that region of America to this piece too. There’s a theme of VHS-era horror here, and none beat the daddy of them, matching scares with gore flawlessly – ‘The Evil Dead,’ mostly shot in Michigan, obviously. Micro budget is no excuse to bore the audience rigid, then deliver belated kill shots. Nope. Having grown up with bootleg copies of Raimi’s opus taking on a certain apocryphal nature with tales of elder sisters driven near-mad by what they saw during a collective screening. That tape-to-tape fuzz and sense of illegality while it was banned (finally released with tree rape and pencil stab cuts around 1990 on Palace in the UK) gave it that extra edge. How many scare flicks could live up to what Sam delivered in 1981? Very few. What a gore-hungry youngster got was less on marginally more of a budget – lurid covers promised the earth, but when it came down to it, for every ‘The Kindred,’ there were twenty films akin to the dreadful ‘The Bogey Man.’ Mr. Raimi, you really spoilt us.
And then there was ‘Faces Of Death’ – mostly faked, but feeling like the ultimate act of pre-teen subversion, for a ten year old, the promise of parachutists falling into crocodile pits and murders on films sounded hugely attractive, and again, the recording of a friend’s friend’s recording added an atmosphere, with the illicit sense that it could go anywhere, free of the restrictions of nasty old James Ferman and his BBFC. Even the distributor’s name and logo, Gorgon, indicated that this wasn’t going to be an easy ride. Despite the snake-maned similarity thematically, Gorgon had nothing to do with the UK’s Medusa, who put out some misleading trash as well as superior budget pieces like ‘Romper Stomper.’ You never forget your first viewing of ‘Faces Of Death’ – borderline quaint now, but without the internet to dispell it as hoax after hoax, a truly subversive experience.
On hearing the talk, you could expect Ti West’s ‘The House Of The Devil,’ made in 2008, to break out the cinematic Ouija board, and bring back the spirit of ’82 alongside the predictably dark forces. After a festival buzz, its natural home is in home entertainment, where so many lurid cheapies found their following. You see, Ti really had a go at raising the bar in the battle to bring back the early ’80s fright film. Rob Zombie gives it a go each time, but falls further into the mire of hillbilly haw-haw brutality and genre guest spots at the rate of one-a-minute with each studio release, ‘Grindhouse’ gave it a go, but it was left to Edgar Wright to nail it with the ‘Don’t’ mock-trailer. That was just two minutes though. Eli Roth, who let Ti helm ‘Cabin Fever 2’ played with throwback touches on the original ‘Cabin Fever,’ but it was still very much a knowing early ’00s motion picture experience. Trust Raimi to do it again by sticking a throwback Universal logo spot before ‘Drag Me To Hell’ too. He’s still got it.
‘The House…’ rolls with a standard premise of girl seemingly alone in a home environment in a babysitting mission gone more than a little askew. Speckled with a post-production application of proper film stock effect, as the antidote to speedy ‘Shield’ style ADD points of view or the RED’s democratic approach to digital clarity onscreen it certainly looks the part. Keen to stay in ’83 aesthetically, the proceedings don’t labour the point with BMXs or breakdancers, but telling Walkman shots and new breed of scream queen, Jocelin Donahue dancing to The Fixx’s ‘One Thing Leads To Another’ has shades of ‘Rain’ by The Cult in ‘Demons 2.’ A sparing use of familiar faces like ‘Cujo’s Dee Wallace and the reliably creepy Tom Noonan keeps things from marinating into a self-knowing sludge too. This is po-faced down to the wilfully stilted dialogue, curious flatness to the sound and infrequent bursts of violence beyond the quiet paranoia. It’s not actually a lot of fun, as was the case with the majority of rentals, pre cert or otherwise that promised to paint the screen red – this film is authentic in that respect.
That Joe Swanberg’s muse, Greta Gerwig gets the sassy friend role isn’t too strange either – she’s excellent here, but there’s shades of Swanberg’s ‘mumblecore’ movement here in the nonchalant pacing. In fact, lovers of the genre Cassavetes built should take a peek at another horror film – George Romero’s disturbing ‘Martin,’ shuffling along like ‘The House Of The Devil,’ even if the name of West’s effort evokes memories of Peter Fonda fleeing a cult in a Winnebago. From the yellow title screens to the original score, static screens and deliberate editing, it’s authentic, and a long way from word-of-mouth drivel like ‘Paranormal Activity’ but unless you yearn for the two night rental pick that alludes to greatness but proves curiously uneventful, leave this one to the fanboys, as it’s ultimately Argento’s ‘Three Mothers’ output without the dizzying levels of flair at work.
So, wasting all those paragraphs to conclude with a mehhhhh verdict? There’s a positive. The marketing for ‘The House Of The Devil’ has been outstanding. Not in that weak viral witches in the wood way, but through a strong visual identity. No less than seven (one is omitted here for being weak) different posters have been in circulation, from a starker silhouette teaser, to scratchier, more lurid imagery. Fonts, and even the clawhammer subtlety present in the “Talk on the phone. Finish your homework. Watch TV. Die…” tagline works. Retro production company logos? Present and correct. Six were designed by Kellerhouse Inc. who handle some of Criterion’s best sleeve creations, including the new ‘Paris,Texas’ remaster, with one by the Silent Giants.
That’s just the appetizer. Releasing the film on VHS in pan and scan format, West and friends have had a chance to truly go crazy – it’s even on the infamous (and recently resurrected for the ‘Faces Of Death’ DVD special edition) Gorgon imprint, down to that eerie sound and imagery preceding the main feature. The box is padded and appropriately oversized too. On the Mondo Tees blog they’ve taken a closer look at this extraordinary approach to promo collateral (pictures lifted from Dread Central) which also comes packaged with the US DVD release (but not the Blu-Ray) with the first run. That alone confers purchase here, and given that the movie itself is hardly extraordinary, it’s proof that the little extras in the merchandising of ‘The House Of The Devil’ genuinely made a difference, hitting the impulse buying nostalgic fan market like an unexpected bullet to the face.