by Steve Habrat
Director Ti West’s The House of the Devil, a fussy tribute to 1980’s horror films, would have seemed right at home in Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s Grindhouse. Perhaps Grindhouse was supposed to be a triple feature and this is a long lost entry?! From the retro opening credits to the coarse camerawork, all the film needed was some digital scratches added in and this could have been a long lost film from the 1980s. For a good majority of its runtime, The House of the Devil is all superb build up. West mounts tension like a pro and leaves the viewer wondering where the film is going to go. Those who have no prior knowledge about the film are in for a shock when the finale roars onto the screen. The climax is both a blessing and a curse for The House of the Devil, satisfying the monster movie crowd while also driving the film into excessively bloody territory. It is the go-for-broke finale that also makes the film seem like it was the forgotten addition to Grindhouse.
Levelheaded college student named Samantha (Played by Jocelin Donahue) is desperate to get out of her dorm where she shacks up with her messy and inconsiderate roommate. Samantha finds the perfect apartment but she is unable to afford the pricey security deposit. The sympathetic landlady agrees to let her have the apartment for just the first month’s rent, which is still slightly a problem for Samantha because she has very little money in her checking account. Samantha soon discovers an odd babysitting job for the vague Mr. Ulman (Played by Tom Noonan), which promises to pay a large sum of money for one night of work. Much to the protests of her best friend Megan (Played by Greta Gerwig), Samantha agrees to take the job, even though the description is slightly suspicious. The babysitting job also happens to line up with a rare lunar eclipse, which has the whole college town buzzing. As the night goes on, Samantha begins to suspect that there is more to the babysitting job than she has been lead to believe.
Director West refuses to hold our hand through much of The House of the Devil, leaving us stranded alone with the protagonist Samantha. West understands that by limiting the amount of characters, it ups the horror ante. We aren’t given the reassurance that multiple characters bring to the table, allowing us to take shelter in the thought that at least a few of these people will make it through the horror. Oh no, Samantha endures a night of terror alone with basically no hope for help, a touch that I really loved. It harkened back to the first time I watched Evil Dead, and the agonizing experience of watching Ash fight to see the morning all by himself. But West also refuses to spoon feed the many plot points to the audience, an approach that both aids in the horror of The House of the Devil but also hurts the payoff. One character’s identity is largely unknown to the audience (although you should be able to pinpoint who he is rather quickly if you are pay attention) and the bloody ending is a bit incoherent and left up for debate with what was actually happening. The incoherent ending does have a plus side, mostly because our lack of information at the end does add to the spookiness of the events that we witness.
West also deserves credit for what he does with set direction and accomplishing the task of transporting us back to the eighties with just a few costumes, a car, an old television set, and a dated pizza shop. It’s obvious that the budget was tight on The House of the Devil, something that always is beneficial because when horror gets a lot of money, valid scares and atmosphere are replaced with CGI monsters. Yet with some high-rise jeans, a Walkman, some clever song usage, and the actual appliance of make-up of the climax’s monster, West achieves a lot with very little. It genuinely feels like it is from the heyday of horror, when things were a lot more restrained and we were a much more patient audience. West allows the style to almost work as a third character, allowing it to grow on screen as the film moves along. I was almost anxious to see what little touch he would throw in next. It culminated in a horror movie special on the local channel that plays George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Very cool, West! I call the style in The House of the Devil a character because it is something that older viewers who lived through and clearly remember this era can relate to, have fun with, and reminisce over. West clearly isn’t doing it just because he thinks its hip.
The acting in The House of the Devil is also top notch, always serious and never hammy. The credit falls on the shoulders of Donahue, who does much of her acting alone. She’s a bit geeky but in a cute way. She is studious, driven, and organized, aspects of her personality that we gather both visually (from her dorm room) and verbally (she is kind of a worrywart). I found myself genuinely fearing for because I found her to be such a sweet girl. I also loved her interaction with her pal Megan. Gerwig gives Megan a feisty side, laying on the opposites attract device rather thick. It’s all in a friendship way in this film. Megan seems more interested in going out and having a good time where Samantha seems like more of a shut in. Tom Noonan as Mr. Ulman is heavily suspicious from his first appearance, playing a tense and faintly sympathetic bad guy. Mary Woronov shows up briefly as Mrs. Ulman, who seems like more of a threat than Mr. Ulman. AJ Bowen shows up as a mysterious bearded man who stalks the home that Samantha is watching.
The House of the Devil is for the diehard fans of the horror genre. Those seeking a fast paced thrill ride will be severely disappointed with what West serves up. The resourcefulness is focused and regimented and the build up is the work of someone who knows how to generate dread in anticipation, something largely missing in mainstream gorefests. When researching the film, I found out that the film was released in VHS form for the promotional side of the film, something that adds to the character of the style and adding to the forgotten gem from the early eighties feel. West did a great job making me feel like I found the movie on the dusty shelves of a run down video store. I wish that West had tweaked the final twenty minutes of the film and toned down some of the absurdity of it. The House of the Devil is scary; that I promise you (one scene near the end really freaked me out and all that you see is a hand coming out of a cracked door) and it is perfect to watch late at night with all the lights out (which I did). Despite its flaws, it’s the perfect sleepover movie or midnight flick for those who long for a time when horror actually had some balls.
The House of the Devil is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.