The House of the Devil (2009)

30 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Filmmaker Ti West is obviously an enthusiast of classic horror films, and indeed, his film “The House of the Devil” feels like an affectionate homage to horror films of the 1970s and 1980s. He not only uses the same filming procedures to refabricate the style of these films, but he also used similar technology (for instance, a 16mm camera to give the film a vintage look). The film also opens with a disclaimer stating that it is based on “true unexplained events.” Isn’t that what the makers of “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” wanted people to believe in 1974?

“The House of the Devil” also uses elements of the “haunted-house” story and the slasher-film subgenre. It also uses the plot element of the “satanic panic” that swept the 1980s and inspired Ronald Reagan’s infamous speech about good and evil.

Oh, and get a load of this—the film is also set in the 1980s. A specific year isn’t mentioned, but you can tell from all sorts of vintage basics that this isn’t set in the 2000s. There are gigantic Coke cups, payphones, answering machines, a Sony Walkman, and feathered hair.

With such ambition, “The House of the Devil” is a terrific old-school thriller with so many interesting touches put into it. This is the kind of callback to the old-fashioned horror films that I looked for and missed in Eli Roth’s “Cabin Fever.” Ti West seems to understand his elements more.

The setup involves an easygoing young woman, Samantha (Jocelin Donahue), who is saving money for her own apartment so she doesn’t have to deal with her skank of a roommate anymore. While checking posters on college-campus, she notices a call for a babysitting job and decides to take it. Samantha’s friend Megan (Greta Gerwig) drives her to the big Ulman house on the night of a full lunar eclipse…in the middle of a dark forest far from society.

Oh yeah! This isn’t going to go well!

Once Samantha introduces herself to the strange Ulman couple (Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov), she is told that there is no “baby” to look after—instead, it’s Mr. Ulman’s aged mother who stays upstairs. Nonetheless, Samantha stays to earn some much-needed cash, while Megan sees this as a red flag and practically begs Samantha to come back home with her. Samantha stays; Megan leaves, but promises to come back later (the Ulmans didn’t want to pay for two). How much do you want to bet that Megan isn’t coming back later?

Now, without giving much away, something shocking (and worthy of the first murder scene in “Psycho”) happens midway through the movie. And when it does, it raises the tension level for the rest of the movie, which is mainly Samantha roaming about the house, trying to relax and enjoy herself in the huge parlor. She doesn’t know what’s happened, but we know that something may or may not happen to her and the rest of the film keeps us on edge until she finally realizes that something is wrong.

The feeling of being alone in a strange house (though not entirely alone with “Mother” upstairs in her room) creates a constant feel of anxiety, so that when the scary stuff does happen, it doesn’t matter how long it’s been set up—when it finally happens, we’re still prepared for it. That’s how it was for me, anyway. It seems to me that West understands that the best thing about this sort of horror film is not the ultimate occurrence that is scary; it’s waiting for it. It’s the anticipation that something is bound to happen that is more fun than anything else. What does happen, and you’ll probably guess from the opening disclaimer (and even the title of the film) that it involves a satanic ritual, is not necessarily as successful as the buildup, but that’s sort of the point.

I loved Jocelin Donahue in this movie. She has such an appealing, easygoing presence, and made for a very likeable protagonist to follow and fear for. She has no trouble in earning our sympathy. Tom Noonan has been suitably creepy in many roles before; this is no exception, as Mr. Ulman. Greta Gerwig is likeable, and also scores a few laughs with the attitude she brings to her cynical character of Megan.

Ti West truly gets the horror genre and knows what it takes to make a satisfactory horror film. This is also true of his later feature “The Innkeepers,” and I wonder what his personal cut of “Cabin Fever 2” (which was not the cut that was ultimately released, leading to West disowning the film) was like, because I’m sure something that sounds as dumb as a sequel to “Cabin Fever” would get my attention if Ti West directed it. I really think he’s that good. And “The House of the Devil” is a terrific horror film, making Ti West a new potential “master of horror.”

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