"You're not the babysitter?"
The House of the Devil was made in 2009, but with the exception of a few minor anachronisms, it could have been made in 1981. When it was released on video in early 2010, there was an Amazon exclusive VHS in the old clamshell case that I wish I had bought as it now routinely goes for absurd amounts of money on ebay. Director Ti West is a godsend to old school horror fans such as myself. He understands that true horror is about mood, atmosphere, slow-burning tension & suspense. Coming at the end of a decade of horror films defined by excess and torture porn, The House of the Devil is a welcome return to the tropes that fueled the horror renaissance of the early 80s.
The film opens with some text about the amount of people who believed in Satan worship in the early 80s, before unleashing the greatest phrase a horror movie can open with: What you're about to see is based on true events. It's complete and total bullshit, but it's a phrase that works wonders on the mindset of the viewer. Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) is a broke college sophomore currently stuck in a bad living situation on her campus, and she's just found the one bedroom place of her dreams, that is, if she can give the woman that owns the property (Dee Wallace from ET) $300 by Monday. At the point of desperation, she sees a sign on a bulletin board on campus that says "Babysitter needed," and calls the number. She's given an offer of $100 for the night, and agrees to go to the house to meet them.
Her friend Megan (mumblecore staple Greta Gerwig) drives her to the house, offering to stay with her, or take her home if the people are creeps. And man, are they ever creepy. Mr. Ullman (Tom Noonan) levels with Sam, telling her that it's not actually a babysitting gig, it's more or less housesitting with an elderly woman in the house. He's reached the point of desperation and offers her $400 to stay there for the night and she accepts. She also meets Mrs. Ullman (Mary Woronov) who manages to out-creep her incredibly creepy husband. Sam takes the job, sends Megan home mad for taking the job, and she has the whole night ahead of her, by herself.
That's pretty much the entire plot. There's a lot of talk about a lunar eclipse throughout that will no doubt come back into play when it needs to. There's one major scare that happens shortly after what I've just mentioned, but then the film settles in and just allows the tension to build and build over the next forty minutes or so. The last twenty minutes pay off for all the waiting you've done, and you'll get your blood and gore, but the film isn't great because it knows how to do bloody violence. It's great because it knows that the key to making bloody violence work is to make you wait for it.
The film is a masterpiece of tension. It's incredibly well crafted and shot just like the old horror movies I grew up watching on VHS. I know that sounds like a back-handed compliment, but Ti West is a latter-day Tarantino, one of those directors who's breadth and depth of knowledge allows him to create a fully-formed homage to the films of his childhood. The Tarantino comparison is unfair to some extent, but this film is to Silent Scream and The Evil Dead what Kill Bill was to Five Deadly Venoms and Master of the Flying Guillotine. West is clearly influenced by Polanski's early thrillers like Repulsion and takes the framework of an 80s horror film, and shoots it like Polanski or Melville would. It's a talent in a director that only comes along once in a while, and I feel that Ti West is a director to not just watch, but to make it a duty to see the stuff he does from now on.
The acting is great across the board. Donahue has that classic horror film beauty look, like Jessica Harper in Suspiria or Karen Allen in Amityville Horror, she's a pretty brunette who wears her vulnerability right there on her sleeve. She's fantastic, particularly the scene where she dances through the house to The Fixx's "One Thing Leads to Another." Watching that scene is like watching people play carelessly in the water in Jaws or Danny riding his trike through The Overlook Hotel, it's a grade-A example of how to do suspense. Tom Noonan is great too, utilizing his size to his advantage by playing his character as timid, almost making him more menacing as a result. Mary Woronov, who played in so many great Roger Corman movies, is also used to great effect here, and together, the two make for one of the creepiest couples ever put film.
The cinematography by Eliot Rockett is also great, using shadows to fantastic effect, and making everything creepy through the use of light and shadow. His use of zoom as opposed to moving the camera is great too, a real sign that you're watching a film that knows how horror movies in the 80s were made. West also wrote and edited the film, and he's as good at those two tasks as he is at directing. The editing is fantastic, lingering when it needs to linger and revealing when it needs to reveal. The score by Jeff Grace is also a classic horror score, lots of strings, and even 80s synthesizers. It makes the film just that much better as a result of being so good.
This is a film that you need to see sooner rather than later. It's fantastic, I really can't say enough good things about it. Anyone fed up with the Saw films of the world needs to get on this thing immediately. This is that film that will restore your hope in the future of horror. There's a lot of boneheads making horror films, and there likely always will be, but as long as the Ti Wests of the world are out there, you can rest assured that the genre will not die a slow, torture-porn filled death.