Those who say that “Antichrist” is without redeeming value don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. Because despite Lars von Trier’s images of child death, bodily torture and forest animals in various states of evisceration, not to mention dialogue that could cause temporary damage to the brain, “Antichrist” does have genuine healing power. A short time before the grieving parents known only as He (Willem Dafoe) and She (Charlotte Gainsbourg) are (spoiler alert!) genitally mutilated, He teaches She the “five, five, and five” method of breathing — that’s five seconds each for the inhaling, holding, and exhaling of breath. Stress relief in just 15 seconds! Try it now — it’s free and it really works! Thanks, Lars!
Another Halloween-season cure for what ails — albeit longer to take, at 93 minutes — is “The House of the Devil.” This is a horror film without pretentious chapter breaks, psychotherapy spews, intimations of Ingmar Bergman and bullshit shout-outs to Andrei Tarkovsky. In other words, where “Antichrist” is torture porn feebly masquerading as high art, “The House of the Devil” is pure fun in the form of an early ’80s babysitter-in-danger flick, a subgenre idealized enough by director Ti West to allow very long takes, entire sequences without dialogue and a “Footloose”-style dancin’-with-myself scene set to the Fixx’s eternally catchy “One Thing Leads to Another.” (Or do you prefer grand-operatic arias with your scares?)
“Antichrist” taunts, mocks and ultimately tortures the viewer; “The House of the Devil” invites us to luxuriate in its proudly grainy, lo-fi, déclassé aesthetic — it’s a movie wherein a pizza delivery carries heavy weight, none of it symbolic. Our heroine is Samantha (Jocelin Donahue), a good-girl college kid with yanked-up jeans and feathered hair who answers an ad for a “BABY $ITTER” in order to fund a much-needed move off-campus. (Her dorm-mate is a 24/7 fornicator, the kind who’d never survive a slasher film.)
We sense from the movie’s title — as well as a printed prologue about Satanism — that there could be something unholy in this particular job offer. Such fears are not at all dispelled by the appearance of Mr. Ulman (Tom Noonan), a freakishly tall, unnervingly soft-spoken weirdo who admits to Samantha that he doesn’t need someone to look after a baby, but, in fact, to watch his wife’s sick old mother for a night. In exchange for this, the man offers $400, which in early ’80s money amounts to a month’s rent, a pepperoni pizza and quite a few kick-ass Fixx tapes for your Walkman.
While there’s little to no rooting interest in “Antichrist,” “The House of the Devil” has it in spades. Following Donahue’s resourceful Sam up and down stairs and through every room in the Ulmans’ old, dark house, this minimalist B-movie gets us to love and respect the babysitter — no minor achievement, come to think of it. Even more impressive, West seems to turn back the clock on American horror by two or three decades, ratcheting up tension by minuscule increments (“One thing leads to another…”) while devoting his camera’s rapt attention to everything — including the kitchen sink. When, at long last, the horror finally comes, it’s…Boom, right in the face. And still we’re smiling.