The House of the Devil (2009)

★★★★

Director: Ti West

Release Date: October 30th, 2009 (US limited)

Genre: Horror

Starring: Jocelin Donahue, Tom Noonan, Greta Gerwig

Ti West must have endured the most haunted of houses during his childhood, because only through first-hand experience can somebody gain, preserve and later paint such an enticing scary picture. Both a thematic precursor to his 2011 spook-gala The Innkeepers and a nostalgic nod to horror in general, The House of the Devil serves up a cauldron full of tension and idiosyncratic peculiarities. Framed within a B movie context where babysitters are in danger, wooden houses creak with undesirable exaggeration and a grainy glaze smoulders from the screen, the film embodies the work of a director smart enough to create a piece that stands out in its maturity whilst also retaining key horror tropes. West admirably holds back in an area where many others have succumbed to generic jump-scares and gore, instead teasing and withholding clarification before building to a timely, creepy crescendo. Paying homage to the haunted house flicks of the 70s and 80s, The House of the Devil concludes the greatest fear is that which cannot be explained, and sometimes the unexplainable thrives inside four walls.

Struggling for cash and trying to fend off a landlady breathing down her neck, Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) throws her name in the babysitting hat. After an odd conversation or two over the phone, she accepts a job offer at short notice given the monetary incentive. Upon reaching her office for the night — a secluded manor hidden amongst the arching trees and a wispy fog — Samantha meets the voice on the other end of her phone calls, Mr. Ulman (Tom Noonan), whose edgy nature reflects the pair’s recent kooky interactions. In fact, Mr. Ulman’s demeanour ain’t the only bizarre manifestation, and it looks like Samantha is in for a long night. Pizza, anybody?

Undoubtedly, The House of the Devil’s greatest strength is its restraint; both from divulging all of the answers immediately, and from rashly conceding to the genericism that has hampered the land of fright — or not — in recent years. Here, mystery shrouds all. Noises echo without a source. Light switches don’t exist in their usual spot on the wall. From the get-go, and even more so when goings-on reach the ill-fated haunted house, there extrinsically exists an offbeat ambiance. Ti West generates a tone that always promises an explosion of manic torment — we’re fully aware that things could kick-off at any moment — but one that relentlessly goads the viewer as tension creeps higher and higher. An inspired tactic, really.

Jeff Grace’s score drones one moment, as if signalling an inert-yet-eerie mundanity, before tingling the ears with sharp bursts that are of the genre but difficult to pinpoint. The cinematography too, relayed by Eliot Rockett, adds to an underlying sense of confusion as the camera stalks Samantha around the house, watching her, waiting for something to frighten; for a head to grace a mirror, or a silhouette to find the shadows, or a figure to appear from behind a door. Samantha often peers from windows and, as the camera pans backwards, we see her for the stranded victim that she is, unbeknown, trapped inside a house that evoked warnings signs way before the front door rattled its hinges to greet our protagonist.

West successfully bolsters this unwavering feeling of mystery and disorientation by suggesting a splatter-fest early on, and subsequently reshuffling the narrative towards the aforementioned suspense-fuelled happenings. Certainly, The House of the Devil avoids any universal horror trap holes, yet the film still reverberates B movie vibes that are welcomed rather than denounced. The premise hardly emits intuition, whereas the execution does entirely and therein lies the success. Characters find a place on the caricature spectrum and remain there throughout; the tall Mr. Ulman’s exasperated oddness contrasts his wife’s sheik, Gothic appearance — it’s not lost on the viewer that she ascends from the basement — and Samantha’s goofy friend Megan is seemingly only able to speak hokily (“How d’ya like them apples?”). Upon conclusion we are greeted by grimy yellow credits, though not before a series of exceedingly haunting flashing imagery. Off-putting in the hands of another, these familiar tropes work effectively here because they coincide with West’s unusually, expertly, tentative approach.

Though not as concise as the narrative, and also slightly constrained by common characters, the performances are solid. Leading the way as Samantha, Jocelin Donahue displays the type of defiant resolve towards the beginning that ends up getting you in trouble, before steadily warping into a paranoid employee. If only she’d listened to her mate Megan, played by Greta Gerwig, whose “it’s too good to be true” caution warrants observation. Gerwig doesn’t have an awful lot to do here, though going by her recent work there’s no questing the Californian’s acting prowess. The most enjoyable performance is evasive and intriguing, delivered by Tom Noonan as Mr. Ulman. Noonan’s unassured motions are the source from which mystery and unusualness sprinkle, aided by his knack for not directly answering questions (“No, not exactly…”). Mary Woronov has little to do as Mrs. Ulman, and A. J. Bowen also makes a fruitless appearance, consolidating the problem that sees one character too many materialise. Listen out for the voice of Girls favourite Lena Dunham.

Ti West is purposeful in direction, creating an atmosphere of ascending dread and hopeless lunacy. His meticulous input sees fear spawn from peculiarity, so much so that even nuances such as the tallness of a stranger promotes creep, and this execution thrives alongside a grin-inducing B movie panache. The House of the Devil is an appreciative mishmash of horror; from haunted house to satanic ritual to psychological thriller, with a gloss of gore. Wait until the end too, for when that inevitable crescendo hits, there may yet be a surprise in store.

This Is 40 (2013)

★★

Director: Judd Apatow

Release Date: December 21st, 2012 (US); February 14th, 2013 (UK)

Genre: Comedy

Starring: Leslie Mann, Paul Rudd

The Valentine’s Day film always goads suspicion. Like releasing a Christmas flick in December, a children’s adventure during mid-term, or a horror movie on Halloween, the legitimacy of the proverbial February 14th film (the date This Is 40 was released in the UK) often comes into question, at least in these semi-cynical eyes. How would it fare in cinemas on any other generic weekend? A moot point really, particularly in terms of critically assessing the piece. But the decision to hold out for a specific release date lends its hand to a lack of confidence in the product in the first place. And sadly, when it comes to Judd Apatow’s This Is 40, a confidence deficit is only one of many headaches. Misdirection, grating characters and a badly written screenplay sit atop a list of negative traits associated with a comedy that’s only occasionally funny, and ought to thank its lucky stars that some semblance of watch-ability is retained through the accommodating faces of Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd.

Seemingly happily married, but unhappily ageing, Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann) live with their two young daughters. They must be pretty well-off too as Debbie owns a boutique and Pete runs his own record label; a venture he probably undertook to get away from his wife every now and again, or maybe it was to embellish himself in a false sense of youthful hipness. It’s not that he doesn’t care for Debbie, but there’s only so much baseless moaning a human can endure. Debbie has just turned 38 — that’s forty to every other sane person — and cannot handle the overbearing, horrifying toll it is taking on her. Only nobody really cares about her age. Especially not the audience. And that’s the problem.

Going into a film titled “This Is 40” you are absolutely aware of the self-opulence about to be hurled your way, but that doesn’t soften any blows from water balloons filled with whine (and not the alcoholic kind) as they relentlessly strike your face. Debbie cannot fathom waking up to the big four-oh, which is a petty mindset in itself but might have had some comedic legs within the boundaries of structured character development and a cohesive narrative. However she’s too jolly too often, making it difficult to engage with any semblance of sympathy that may or may not exist. Debbie lies on medical forms to hide her age, yet she doesn’t even bother to use a consistent date of birth. Further tarnishing matters is her relationship with husband Pete, one that skips foot-by-foot between hot coals of happiness and hatred quicker than the first penis joke is sounded. The duo get up to generic antic after generic antic, from hash-cookie gorging to awkward family gatherings that are no longer awkward. Heck, the film itself struggles to identify any prerogative – “The sort of sequel to Knocked Up,” reads the poster.

The best character is Sadie, Pete and Debbie’s eldest daughter, because she is easy to relate to; when met with end-of-the-world stipulations we concur with her inexperienced spitefulness, knowing it’s not terminal. There’s a significant difference between a 13-year-old cursing the earth over a Lost ban enforced by her parents, and a grown-up churlishly denouncing her existence over age. Besides, if someone prevented me from watching Lost, I’d lose the plot too (“It’s not frying my brain, it’s blowing my mind”). Interestingly, This Is 40 is an Apatow family affair: Judd directs, Leslie stars, and their two children Maude and Iris act.

Another nail in the coffin is hammered tediously by way of a fairly uneventful plot. Although comedies are driven first and foremost by gags, quips and puns, a baseline story must be present in order to provide a buffer. Nothing happens in the opening 30 minutes (of an unnecessarily long two hour runtime), other than the establishment of how great the family before our eyes have it in life. Both daughters amble around with iPads, the two parents drive their own glimmering cars, the house is spacious and homely, Pete spends his time gorging on delicious-looking cakes and Debbie eats out with her father at up-scale restaurants. Sounds pretty good to me. And other than the groan-inducing issue of getting older that pitifully tries to veil itself as a narrative, no authentic dramas arise until proceedings are too far gone (by that time, the JJ Abrams condemnation has played out and there’s no way back into my good books). Historically Apatow has been hit-or-miss in the director’s chair, and neither his directorial nor his writing skills are up to standard here.

Thankfully, there are a few positives. Even though many characters are lifeless, they benefit enormously from embodiment by a pair of very likeable actors. Paul Rudd is up there with the best comedic performers around today, someone whose timing and wit often exceed the material in front of him. Pete is not the most annoying character, but without the spark provided by Rudd he’d likely be the most boring — instead, that accolade goes to camera-fodder Desi, played by Megan Fox, whose existence in the film seems only to advocate prostitution because it affords you a nice car. Leslie Mann, although straddled by the gripe-ridden Debbie, once or twice manages to valiantly charm her way through an annoying character and relax into that recognisable humorous self in moments of respite. Chris O’Dowd is criminally underused as an employee at Pete’s record company, but manages to be funny when given the chance. Melissa McCarthy, Lena Dunham and Jason Segel also find time for a cup of coffee. Oh, and there’s a very funny Simon & Garfunkel joke. I’m out.

Hampered by shoddy characters, all too familiar comedy tropes and a messy narrative, This Is 40 ain’t even good enough to be a one star film. Occasional murmurs of humour seep through, and likeable faces shield the piece from too much brutal disharmony, but a lot more is required. Sadly, neither man(n) can save this one: Ant nor Leslie.