The House of the Devil
by Jason Coffman
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I’ve said it before, and it bears repeating: it’s hard to be a horror film fan. Especially in today’s film market, with the proliferation of dire remakes and obligatory sequels, where we routinely see genuinely great films shunted directly to DVD where they may or may not ever find the audience they deserve. These are dark times, and many fans pine for the good old days— which, depending on each particular fan, might be the Universal horrors of the early 30’s, the sci-fi/horror boom of the 50’s, or the exploitation films of the 70’s and early 80’s. Writer/director Ti West is clearly a scholar when it comes to the latter, presumably spending his teenage years trolling the horror shelves of his local video store.
From the article at the front of its title all the way to the end credits, The House of the Devil is a beautiful gift to modern horror cinema and long-suffering fans: a reminder that a horror movie can be fun, creepy, and tense instead of just ugly, dour and gruesome. As a replica of look and feel, it’s on par with Anna Biller’s stunning Viva— you could put this on a double-feature bill with any low-budget drive-in fare from 1978-1982 and an unwitting audience wouldn’t bat an eye. That is, unless they’re big fans of Dee Wallace Stone, Tom Noonan, and Mary Woronov, genre vets who put in memorable appearances.
Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) is a college student who wants to move out of her dorm room. She finds a great little place but desperately needs some money to move in. She decides to take a babysitting job from a cryptic ad, and her friend Megan (Greta Gerwig, unrecognizable in 80’s drag!) drives her to the house. It’s a long way from campus, and once they reach their destination the girls are immediately creeped out by Mr. Ulman (Noonan). He tells Samantha that he does not actually need her to babysit, but to watch the house while he and his wife are out and make sure his mother is taken care of.
Samantha balks, but Ulman offers her considerably more money than she would have made in a standard babysitting job, so she reluctantly agrees. She briefly meets Mrs. Ulman (Woronov) before the couple hurries out, and Megan agrees to return for Samantha at midnight. Now Samantha is left to her own devices in a very large, very dark, very creepy house, alone except for old Ms. Ulman upstairs… but, as in so many blind babysitting jobs, nothing is quite what it seems.
The House of the Devil isn’t so much an homage to low-budget period horrors, it is one. West’s attention to period detail is impressive, from Megan’s feathered hair to Samantha’s giant Walkman. There is literally nothing in the film that might tip off a viewer that it was actually made in 2008, including its structure. The bulk of the film takes place in the house, where Samantha wanders around and a terrifying demise seems waiting to spring at any second. Given this, viewers might think it’s weird when she goes off on a dance through the house with her Walkman on, or when she orders a pizza. But really, what else would a character in a horror movie do? Some of her actions might not be exactly true to her character, but they’re true to the type of movie she’s in.
The simple fact is this: The House of the Devil is one of the best horror films of the year, a treat for fans longing for a return to subtle scares and low-key creepiness. Horror fans as well as fans of early-80’s period pieces owe it to themselves to give this one a look. Ti West is obviously a talent to watch, and Magnet Releasing (the film’s distributor) proves that they’re the best place to look for intelligent and original new genre cinema.
The House of the Devil is playing in select theaters and is available On Demand.
Jason Coffman is a film critic living in Chicago.
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