Wow. That sums up my feelings concerning Ti West’s “The House of the Devil”. This movie should be viewed as a master class in creating an effective horror film without relying on gore and gaudy jump scares. Its greatest asset is that its actually scary, as opposed to revolting, and sticks in your psyche long after the end credits are gone. Adding to the fun, the movie’s aesthetics and atmospherics are meant to emulate the horror films of the early 1980s, something it accomplishes splendidly. This is all the more impressive given that director West only has three completed features to his name.
“House of the Devil” concerns Samantha (Jocelin Donahue), a (what else?) college student who is in need of some quick cash to use towards first month’s rent on a new apartment. She spots an ad on campus for a (what else?) babysitting job. Along with her friend Megan (Greta Gerwig), Samantha drives to the house where the ad originated, and Mr. Ulman (Tom Noonan), whose peculiarities disturb both Sam and Megan, greets her there. Mr. Ulman reveals he doesn’t actually need a babysitter, but someone who will take care of his elderly mother while he and Mrs. Ulman drive off to watch that night’s lunar eclipse. Sam tries to leave at this point, but Mr. Ulman’s offer to increase her pay for the night convinces her to stay. Megan begrudgingly drives off, promising to pick Sam up in the morning. Sam begins to explore the house, and discovers there’s much more than an old lady afoot.
The pacing of “House of the Devil” has been described by some as “slow”, a statement with which I wholeheartedly disagree. It’s true that the movie utilizes a slow build. For more than an hour, nothing revelatory happens aside from Sam searching the nooks and crannies of the Ulman’s unnerving home. This is why the narrative works so well, however. We are kept guessing when something will happen to a point where the tension becomes almost unbearable; akin to a spring which is coiled to its breaking point. When the pendulum finally swings though, we are not disappointed.
Credit must also be given to Ti West and crew for so convincingly re-creating the look and feel of the movie’s place in time. All the details are present, from Megan’s feathered, Farrah Fawcett-esque hairstyle, to the vintage rotary phones. The soundtrack also includes several nods to the 80s, including a taste of The Fixx’s “One Thing Leads to Another.” In addition, the film stock itself is given a grainy retro look. However, all this retro trickery does not function as a tongue-in-cheek exercise to satiate the skinny jeans and irony crowd. It comes from a director who possesses a great deal of reverence and knowledge of the horror genre, and seeks to create something that will become as venerated by horror fans as some of the movies he is emulating.
©2010 – 2011 Cinematic Horror Archive, Dave J. Wilson – All work is the property of the credited author(s) and may not be reprinted or reproduced elsewhere without permission.