I'm not Satanic... I Promise: The House of the Devil, A Dark Song, and Suspiria (1977)

I watched a few horror movies this weekend that I had never seen (two considered “classics” of the genre, and another based on a recommendation from a friend) and decided to write some quick thoughts on them.  In short: I’d recommend all of these, as they’re all stellar films with atmospheres that drip with dread.

The House of the Devil

Directed by Ti West, “The House of the Devil” revolves around a young woman named Samantha who, desperate for money, decides to respond to an ad for a “babysitting” job on the night of a lunar eclipse.  When her friend Megan (“Lady Bird” director Greta Gerwig) drops her off at the man’s house she’s told that she’ll actually be watching his mother.  The night slowly spins out of control as things are not as they seem, and the owners of the house are hiding a terrible secret.

“The House of the Devil” came out in 2009, and movies just don’t get more nostalgic than this one.  Right from the jump, you can see what Ti West was going for.  This movie looks like it sat in a can for twenty years before being dusted off and screened to modern audiences.  The plot is fairly simple, and the movie takes it’s time going through the motions in order to set up a wacky third act involving some sort of satanic ritual much like we saw at the end of “Rosemary’s Baby”.

The best thing Ti West does in this film is hold back on the scares.  There are multiple scenes in this where your eyes will be darting around the screen, desperate to find the threat that you would swear has to be coming, only for a cut to happen with no generic “scary moment.”  West apparently understands that once you employ the, “jump scare,” all of the tension is wasted for a cheap moment, and that it’s far more unsettling for the audience if you keep them anxious and waiting.

On a final note, the soundtrack in this is just awesome.  The best scene in the movie involves the main character dancing around an empty house to “One Thing Leads to Another” (The Fixx).  It doesn’t get more awesomely 80s than that!

Grade: B

A Dark Song

First time director Liam Gavin’s film, “A Dark Song”, centers on a woman who hires an occultist to help her perform a ritual in order to reach out to her dead son, who was murdered by some Satanists a few years earlier.  The two of them lock themselves in a house for an extended period of time, performing many different ceremonies in the hopes of meeting their guardian angels, who they can then ask to grant them a wish.

This film was released by IFC Midnight, and reminded me quite a bit of some of the A24 films we’ve seen in the last few years (“Hereditary”, “The VVitch”, “It Comes at Night”, etc.) in that it’s definitely a slow burn that isn’t for everyone.  It has some intense moments (there’s a scene with a demon and a cigarette that’s extremely effective), but it’s another film that depends heavily on atmospheric dread versus jump scares to achieve its goal of disturbing its audience.

I have a sneaking suspicion that what most will hate about this movie is the thing that I found so great about it: its ending.  It used to be rare to see fully realized character arcs in the horror genre, but now it seems like these films are deeper than ever.  The main character in this learns a lesson, and that’s refreshing.

This movie is carried by its two leads.  Both Catherine Walker and Steve Oram give incredible performances that are worthy of recognition.  They are literally the only two people in 95% of the film, and what they're able to do with the script they’re given is fantastic.

Grade: B+

Suspiria (1977)

Dario Argento’s classic film, “Suspiria”, is about an American girl named Susy who enrolls in a famous dance academy in Germany.  She immediately notices something off with the school, as another student is frantically leaving when she arrives, and is found murdered shortly after.  The longer she stays, the more odd things she notices, as she’s stricken ill, and begins to believe the school teachers/administrators are hiding their true intentions.

OK… I now get why people were afraid to hear this was being remade.  This movie is just awesome.  The cinematography, set design, and level of gore all justify it as a bonafide classic… and that score!  “Goblin” was really cranking out the great horror themes in the 70s.  Between this film and “Dawn of the Dead” they may have composed two of the five greatest horror film scores in history.  It seriously needs to be heard to be believed (take a break from the review and listen below).

This is yet another film that is all about atmosphere, as the halls of the dance academy are designed and shot in a way that makes you feel like you’re in some sort of dream world.  There are bright colors in nearly every shot, and the hallways and rooms all feel claustrophobic as hell.  About five minutes into the movie I realized that they were using some wacky filming techniques.  The whole film is shot with a wide angle lens, and most of the shots are from angles that enhance the depth of the sets on screen.  I would guess that it would be nearly impossible to estimate the sizes of the rooms in the dance academy due to just how off everything looks.

“Suspiria” is a rare example of a movie that is both perfect for film students and general audiences in that it is all over the places as far as film techniques are concerned (both the music and the camera itself are almost characters), but is also extremely entertaining.

Grade: A