The fake-out scare is one of the oldest tricks in the book, the cinematic equivalent of springing a jack-in-the-box on an unsuspecting baby. Used sparingly, it’s a great setup for a sucker punch. By building tension and then revealing it to be unfounded (it was just a cat!), viewers let down their guard and become more susceptible to real scares.
But filmmakers have become hyperactive, focused on getting audiences to jump rather than feel true dread. It’s skewed the horror market, which explains why for every slow-burner like The Others or The Orphanage, we get six Saws, three slasher reboots and a pair of Japanese remakes.
It also explains why nobody saw Ti West’s 2009 movie The House of the Devil (playing Friday through Sunday at Portland State’s 5th Avenue Cinema). The film is extremely deliberate in its pacing, telling the story of a perky college student (Jocelin Donahue) who shows up in the boondocks for a baby-sitting gig on the evening of a full lunar eclipse, only to discover that the owners (cult actors Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov, oozing casual menace) have actually duped her into an elder-care job. The old lady, they say, sticks to her room. All sweet little Samantha needs to do is watch TV, eat pizza and not go upstairs. Naturally, she goes upstairs.
On its surface, West’s low-budget film is a throwback to video-store schlock of the early ’80s. Samantha comes outfitted with a Walkman and feathered hair. The film often looks like it was shot on a VHS camcorder, and it’s loaded with the freeze-frames and block text that defined the era.
West, though, created a completely different kind of throwback. Despite its outward appearances, The House of the Devil pays homage to a bygone era of slow-burn horror, to masters like Alfred Hitchcock and, most directly, Roman Polanski—particularly Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant—with a story that stretches dread to the breaking point before jumping into a bugfuck climax with giallo overtones.
The House of the Devil is neither terrifying nor rushed. Instead, most of it involves Samantha simply exploring the cavernous old mansion, accompanied by a soundtrack that alternates between creaks, footfalls and the corny ’80s music blasting from her headphones. Occasionally, we’re treated to a glimpse of the horrors hidden behind closed doors, but mostly, we know what Sam knows. As her paranoia grows, so does ours. It’s an exercise in nerve-fraying that rewards the patient viewer, even if some decry it as being all buildup, little payoff.
sadly, are the ones who fill seats. West followed up his electric
breakout with another little-seen slow-burner, The Innkeepers, before succumbing to the found-footage trope with his contribution to anthology film V/H/S and the Jonestown-inspired The Sacrament. The House of the Devil remains his triumph. And it managed all that dread without a single goddamned cat. Portland State’s 5th Avenue Cinema. 7 pm Friday-Saturday and 3 pm Sunday, May 16-18.
- Women in the workplace?! The ’80s were a crazy time. Working Girl is a delight, and this screening is preceded by standup from comedians Sean Jordan and Jenna Zine. Mission Theater. 8:30 pm Wednesday, May 14.
- Billy Wilder may have been the first to tackle Hollywood’s destructive qualities with his 1950 noir classic Sunset Boulevard, but he certainly wasn’t the last. Sixty years ago, the subject gave us one of our greatest films. Today, we’re stuck with TMZ. Laurelhurst Theater. May 16-22.
- As computer effects once again take over the summer multiplex, now’s the perfect time to revisit Mad Max, if only to see what a real car chase looks like. And what a not-crazy Mel Gibson looks like. Academy Theater. May 16-22.
- With a career that includes such disparate films as The Exorcist, Cruising, Killer Joe and The French Connection, it’s not surprising that William Friedkin’s The Sorcerer gets overlooked. But the white-knuckle story of roughnecks transporting nitroglycerine through the South American jungle is one of the director’s greatest gems, Matthew McConaughey’s KFC fetish notwithstanding. 5th Avenue Cinema. 7:30 pm Friday, May 16.
- With the Blazers against the ropes, relive the bygone days with Fast Break, a documentary about the 1976-77 championship season that stars Bill Walton’s chin strap. Clinton Street Theater. 1:30 pm Saturday, May 17.
- Beatnik jazz. Go-go dancers. Ape monsters! Damn, the ’60s were amazing, and Repressed Cinema brings the sleaze by unearthing 1965’s exploitation oddity All Men Are Apes! Hollywood Theatre. 7:30 pm Tuesday, May 20.