The House of the Devil was not only my favorite horror film of 2009, but in my humble opinion, one of the best of the year in any genre. Borrowing inspiration from 1970s and '80s "auteur" horror films like those of Roman Polanski (Rosemary's Baby) and Stanley Kubrick (The Shining), writer-director Ti West created a modern-day vintage masterpiece with his tale of a babysitter terrorized by a crew of Satanic cultists. And it's not only his influences, but his effectiveness rendering a believable 1980s world – both cinematically and on-camera – which left me unsurprised when an odd-shaped package arrived at my house last week from the good folks at MPI Media containing an actual videotape of the film.
Although the videocassette does indeed feature a beautifully creamy, pan-and-scan version of West's film, neither he nor MPI are especially serious about the outdated format being the only way to watch The House of the Devil. (It's available February 2 on DVD and Blu-ray.) Rather, they sent out tapes as a throwback to precisely the movies it would sit with on video store shelves – complete with a logo from iconic '80s distributor Gorgon Video – in the process creating what I'd argue is one of the most gloriously authentic pieces of swag in the history of home video promotion. In fact, this tape literally puts the video back into home video.
Of course, its very existence reminds cinephiles how far we've come with home video content in just two decades. The closest thing to an "extra" we used to expect would be a variety pack of trailers for recent releases, or in really special cases, a weird promotional featurette whose accessibility before or after the film proved either ruinous of its surprises or superfluous to its impact. All of which brings us to the actual extras on the HOTD DVD and Blu-ray, which bolsters the film's early '80s integrity (at least in its making) while satisfying the appetites of contemporary collectors eager to immerse themselves in more of (and about) the movie.
Ironically, I feel vaguely compelled to recommend the pan-and-scan presentation of The House of the Devil on VHS first, if only because that seems the most appropriate for the film's 16mm cinematography and makes its austere, low-budget look colder and more authentic. That said, the DVD and Blu-ray both provide terrific widescreen presentation of West's original images, even if they feel like a little bit of a cheat for a film set in the 1980s.
The extras are somewhat limited but really leave little out, featuring two commentaries, two featurettes, a collection of deleted scenes and the film's theatrical trailer. One featurette is fairly standard promotional stuff that includes interviews with key members of the cast and crew, while the other offers a largely unfettered, behind-the-scenes glimpse at the production, which was spectacularly effective despite its obvious budgetary limitations. (When it looks like the entire film was not only shot but sustained in the titular "house," you know that the filmmakers could stretch a dollar.)
The deleted scenes, meanwhile, are really just a compilation-reel of footage that wasn't used, which West cops to in his commentary with HOTD star Jocelin Donahue. The first two shots are opposite sides of a telephone conversation between Donahue's character Samantha and her friend Megan (Greta Gerwig), and while the material is mildly amusing, it certainly didn't need to be in the movie – again, which West acknowledges. The other material feels more like insert shots, such as one of the Ulman family's demonic houseguest, but again it's not the kind of stuff anyone will wish was in the film, owing largely to West's shrewdness as a director and his ability to put together an effective film by maximizing his footage and minimizing frills or flights of directorial fancy.
In his commentary with Donahue, West further reveals his inspiration and ideas that led to the development of HOTD as a haunting, atmospheric film as opposed to something more immediately visceral. He briefly discusses that idea of "auteur" horror before breaking down individual scenes in terms of performance, set design and shot selection, while Donahue gamely chimes in with her observations from the other side of the camera. What's weirdly interesting is how (as above) West comments on some of the interviews and extra footage he assembled for other sections of the home video release, such as the aforementioned "deleted scenes;" informing Donahue of observations actor Tom Noonan made during a press interview not only deepens the information and interaction of different creative forces on the film but essentially offers secondary commentaries on other parts of the Blu-ray.
On the commentary West records with producers Larry Fessenden and Peter Phok, West enjoys marveling at the great work of his collaborators, starting with folks like Robin Fitzgerald, who worked magic finding the right trinkets and accouterments to make each character look believable and accurate for the period. They also talk about music composers Jeff Grace, who did the film's fantastic score, and Mike Armstrong, a friend of West's who turned the film's opening theme into a tribute to John Carpenter, Barry De Vorzon and Goblin while still managing to make it sound distinctive and original.
Finally, they talk about the actors. Donahue gets the lion's share of the praise because she spends so much time alone on screen, but their observations about her naturalness really enhance the viewer's experience, particularly when she's doing things like lingering over the telephone cord or ordering pizza off of a number from the fridge – you know, the stuff that typically gets overlooked by fans in lieu of gore or graphic horrors.
Ultimately, I think the film's slow-burn approach, much like its affection for the primitive pleasures of a version released on VHS, may not be for everybody, but it is in almost every way the antithesis of what constitutes contemporary horror: authentic period detail rather than glib pop culture high points, character development as opposed to mere accumulating body counts, and most of all, true suspense instead of facile shock. In which case The House of the Devil is a must-have for any movie collection, on any format, whether horror is your bread and butter or you've been waiting for better films to flesh out that section of your collection. Best of all, it serves both casual fright fans and suspense specialists with equal entertainment value; but no matter how much of a DVD or Blu-ray booster you may be, don't be surprised if the copy you keep coming back to is the one in a clamshell case.