REVIEW: “The House of the Devil”

house-posterTi 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.

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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.

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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

4.5 STARS

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6 thoughts on “REVIEW: “The House of the Devil”

  1. Okay, I’ve come to the conclusion it must be me. Everyone seems to love this movie and I just can’t stand it. And I grew up on 80s horror flicks. Slow boiling would be one thing, but it’s like he has this gargantuan sized pot of water he’s trying to heat with a single match that keeps going out. This thing doesn’t just move at a slow pace, it crawls uneventfully to a conclusion we see coming literally an hour before it happens. Of the 90 or so minutes it took me to watch this, I spent at least 70 of them checking my watching thinking that surely three or four hours must have passed. That’s how interminably long it felt. The one good thing about it is that it’s ever-so-slightly better than the other Ti West film I saw, The Innkeepers. Far as I’m concerned, the only thing West has a firm grasp on is how to bore me to death. Sorry for the rant.

    • No it’s fine Wendell. I can see where West wouldn’t be for everyone. Just finishing up my Innkeepers review and I’ll just say I liked this one significantly more. I loved West’s deliberate pace mainly because he feeds new bits of information which built the tension (for me). I was hooked from the very start.

  2. I’ve never seen this one, maybe I should’ve went with this instead of watching We Are Still Here, which was terrible. lol. I’m going to go google some spoilers because I have no self control. Great review!

    • Thanks Brittani! I was so impressed by this thing. It’s a slow-burn but the tension and anticipation grows and grows. Then when you get to the end…wooooo!

  3. This was a really good movie, and I enjoyed all the performances in this. I havent seen Jocelin appear in anything else after this and she was really good. I loved to know what film stock Ti West used to make it look like an 80’s film

    • I really liked her performance as well. I had checked out her IMDb page but only saw a few bit parts since this film came out. That’s really surprising. And I completely agree with you on the look of this film. The 16mm was such a cool touch.

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