GOOD HELP IS HARD TO FIND: Reviews of The Maid and The House of the Devil

I love dark comedies, which means I loved two-thirds of the Maid. It’s actually two movies in one. The first half (the dark part, the part I luuuuved) is about a middle aged maid, played in delightfully mean spirited fashion by Catalina Saavedra, who after twenty years on the job starts having dizzy spells and finds the work not as easy as it once was. The family decides to hire a helper. They have no ulterior motives here; the new maid it not there to replace Raquel, but to make things easier for this good and faithful servant. But Raquel, with her large dark eyes and that constant look of a deer caught in headlights, doesn’t see it that way. To her, a new worker in the house is not just merely a prelude to being replaced (though that would be bad enough), but a helper would take way Raquel’s existential purpose in life. So she fights back. She treats any new addition with contempt (scrubbing a bathroom clean after they use it and, most amusingly, locking them out of the house). She also does something that is all too typically human in her effort to retain her position: she starts alienating all her supporters (including complaining to the mother that her son is masturbating into the bed sheets). This is all wicked fun and wickedly funny. But then something happened. The writer and director (Sebastian Silva) changes horses in midstream, goes all gooey on us, and replaces this delightful darkness with a self help primer as Raquel meets her match in a maid who actually helps Reqauel realize herself as a human being. This part is all done in very realistic fashion as opposed to the off kilter approach of the earlier scenes and would make any book store self help guru proud. But it’s a disconcerting change. I was never quite certain whether to take it all seriously. It kept reminding me of Alfred Hitchcock who said that if he did Cinderella, people would expect to find a corpse in the carriage. Here, based on the first part of the movie, I kept expecting one more turn of the screw, like the ending to Claude Chabrol’s La Ceremone where the maid kills her employers with the help of a friend. But here everyone stayed life affirmingly and somewhat dully alive.

For me, House of the Devil was everything Drag Me to Hell should have been, but wasn’t (you remember Drag Me to Hell; it’s that movie in which a witch is omnipotent in all areas except the one most convenient for the author—she can’t make her mortgage payments). Whereas Drag Me to Hell is all jump and go boo, The House of the Devil is based more on mood and suspense and a slow build up to a terrifying ending. It’s like Val Lewton, but in color. It takes place in the 1990’s, before cell phones (it’s so odd seeing someone using a pay phone and having trouble making contact with someone) and concerns a college student, played very well by Jocelin Donahue, who needs money for a first month’s rent so she can get an apartment and move out of the dorm room she shares with her messy and promiscuous roommate. What she needs is under the table money and so she answers an ad for a baby sitter. It takes some doing to make contact with the man who put up the ad, but she does and after her BFF drives her out to the middle of nowhere (past a cemetery no less) and they meet the somewhat creepy, yet not quite creepy enough to send up enough red flags, couple played almost but not quite creepily by Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov. Jocelin takes the job when the money becomes too high to refuse. Alone in the house, things start getting scary in the way that a house starts getting scary whenever we’re alone there. And then she finds out what she was really hired for. The scenes in the house where she starts out scaring herself pretty much rank with such classic scenes as Jane Randolph walking to a bus stop or going swimming in a dark pool area in Cat People or Dana Andrews walking down a hotel hallway and hearing odd noises in Curse of the Demon. The script, by director Ti West, does have one problem: it jumps suddenly from the second part to the final third and almost seems to leave out a few scenes. This jump is so abrupt, we don’t fully find out exactly what the eclipse of the moon had to do with anything and the surprise ending’s a little off (and just when did our heroine have sex). But it’s still a fun, scary good time in the theater.

So tell me what you think.

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