To hell The House of the Devil can go 

The opening of The House of the Devil mimics the look and tone of late-model drive-in schlock so fondly, for a moment I could've sworn I was back at the old Marbro Drive-In in Murfreesboro—picking rancid popcorn out of my floormat, ignoring muffled cries from a nearby Chevy Nova. It's all here: the bogus "based on true facts" warning, the porn-ready synthesizer score, the orange credits plastered over mundane freeze frames. An hour and a half later, I remembered why so many times I peeled out of the lot. Is knowingly reconstituted crap any better than crap?

I would argue that it's worse, and so is The House of the Devil, a self-conscious throwback to the demon-cult movies that proliferated in the 1970s, hellspawn of lingering Manson Family fascination and the blockbuster success of Rosemary's Baby. Remember The Sentinel, or Brotherhood of Satan, or Peter Fonda and Warren Oates using their RV to outrun Beelzebub in Race with the Devil? Most likely writer-director-editor Ti West doesn't, at least from first go-round—he was born in 1980—but he's gathered all the proper elements: a nubile college student, some weirdos in an old dark house, a sacrificial chamber accessorized with pentagrams, blood chalices and such.

But the only thing a lot of late-'70s B-horror movies had going for them was their unfaked grubbiness, a film of low-budget grime that gave the proceedings an unhealthy snuff-movie vibe. By outfitting the movie like an episode of That '80s Show, lingering over retro TV and pay phones (they made calls, they took quarters—ask your parents) and stopping dead for a dance sequence scored to The Fixx, West essentially brackets The House of the Devil in air quotes. Regrettably, the characters still do the same ass-fool things they did in those crappy old movies—like, hello, agreeing to stay in a remote old house watching over some unseen "mother," at the behest of a stranger who looks like the child-molester cousin of Rocky Horror's Riff Raff.

The stranger is the immensely overqualified Tom Noonan, flanked by cult favorites such as Mary Woronov and Dee Wallace: West doesn't know how to fit them into the movie so that their appearances don't scream "cameo," but they're welcome presences anyway. An unexpected success is the lead, Jocelin Donahue, who pulls off the kind of stops-out splatter-ingenue act that made '70s audiences fall for Jessica Harper. Her conviction is the only thing motoring The House of the Devil through its concluding bombardment of strobe-cut shocks and ho-hum gore effects.

The House of the Devil is being released by Magnolia Pictures' promising genre-movie subsidiary Magnet, which pursued an intriguing strategy of grindhouse fare for arthouse audiences with last year's Let the Right One In and its Six-Shooter film series. Lame as this entry is, it's still preferable to the YouTube-caliber jolts of Paranormal Activity—but if these films deserve the inexplicably adoring reviews they're getting, Race with the Devil merits its own garage in the Cinematheque Française.


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