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The House of the Devil Proficient, if not Psychologically Piercing

The Devil, apparently, lives in an out-of-the-way gingerbread Victorian, just past the cemetery, where college sophomore Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) is lured for overnight housesitting by an elegant, forbidding couple (Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov, both queerly over-intimate). Though its poster and opening title freeze-frames threaten '80s kitsch, House of the Devil drops the quotation marks quick, lingering over wet autumn atmosphere in a couple of well-scouted locations (under-populated campus; cold, quiet house). Pumping the audience with inhale-exhale zooms and out-of-the-way close-ups, director Ti West's ratcheting of suspense in this alone-in-an-empty-house tale is proficient, if not psychologically piercing, in the best Let's Scare Jessica to Death fashion. What makes House stand out above the bad crop of October horror is Donahue, who commands the frame as soon as she is left alone by her out-of-tune best friend (and mumblecore alum), Megan (Greta Gerwig), who oppresses every scene she plays with strenuous cutesiness and sticky line-readings. Gravely gorgeous in the style of a storybook Snow White, Donahue gives eloquent reaction shots and nails West's pièce de résistance—a bounding, Walkman-soundtracked, Jazzercise dance through the house. Would that this scene's control carried into the finale, panicking into videocam illiteracy just as a steady hand is needed most.

 
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