Ti West has a clear grasp of the guiding principle for many classic horror films – the anticipation can be just as satisfying as the payoff. He takes that thought to heart in his 2009 film “The House of the Devil”. It’s a slow-boiling horror picture focused on building the audience’s dread and prodding their imaginations. West is deliberate with what he feeds us which is just fine since he creates a boatload of suspense in the process.
The main character is cash-strapped college sophomore named Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) who needs money for a new apartment. She responds to a flyer requesting a babysitter on the night of a rare lunar eclipse. Samantha’s best friend Megan (played by the always lively and true Greta Gerwig) drops her off at the large Victorian home of Mr. Ulman (Tom Noonan) and his wife (Mary Woronov). It so happens that the home is down an isolated wooded road AND next to a cemetery. Warning signs aglow.
The gentle voiced but creepy Mr. Ulman springs a surprise on Samantha – something he failed to mention in the flyer. I’ll let you find out what it is for yourself, but she only agrees to stay after he quadruples her pay. The Ulman’s head off to their eclipse-watching gathering leaving Samantha in charge, along with her intense curiosity and active imagination.
West plants here for a bit allowing the tension to build and then slowly simmer. As Samantha begins exploring the house we gain an ominous feeling of dread. We watch knowing all along something is going to happen. Even when Samantha pops on her headphones and playfully dances around to The Fixx’s “One Thing Leads to Another” (an amusingly appropriate title) we still are waiting for something terrible to occur. That’s something the good horror pictures of the 70s and 80s did well.
West has that same knack. Even though he is often playing with familiar ideas within the horror genre, he clearly knows what makes these films work. Some examples: He spends time developing the central character. Samantha isn’t a flimsy, disposable protagonist. He also understands the effectiveness of well-managed music. Jeff Grace’s Carpenter-esque score is a perfect complement and West knows how to employ it. And then there is his selective use of gore. The corn syrup does eventually flow, but this is far from some splatter-a-minute gorefest. Again, the focus is more on getting to the payoff. But that doesn’t mean the payoff isn’t a nostalgic bit of old-school fun.
Another treat is the 80s setting. My wife and I had such fun seeing who could notice the most references to the decade. Feathered hair, high-waist blue jeans, friendship bracelets, and of course a Sony Walkman as big as a brick. West even shoots with 16mm film which makes it seem even more of a movie of that time.
“The House of the Devil” features an old-fashioned quality that I love, but it’s much more than just a nostalgic piece. It’s a genuinely tense throwback to the classic horror idea of doing the basic things really well. It also plays around with several subgenres and shakes them up just enough to add a unique flavor to the movie. All of these good ingredients mix well with West’s undeniable craft making this a real treat for horror fans.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS