Short Version: Ti West’s The House of the Devil is an agonizingly suspenseful and genuinely creepy homage to 1980s horror that hits nearly all the right notes.
Screen Rant’s Rob Frappier reviews The House of the Devil
Let’s see if this sounds familiar: An attractive and likable college co-ed takes a job as a babysitter at a creaky old house even though we know (and she senses) that something devious is afoot. If you’re thinking to yourself, “Been there, done that,” I’d ask you to continue reading anyway.
While Ti West’s The House of the Devil may sound familiar, the film’s potent mix of suspense, creepiness and gore is well worth the price of admission.
Though I’ve already outlined the plot somewhat, allow me to fill in a few more details. Samantha (played by newcomer Jocelin Donahue) needs some quick cash to move out of her dorm room and into her own apartment. Walking through campus, she sees an ad for a babysitter and decides it could be an easy way to make some money. Upon arriving at the house, which is tucked deep in the woods and reminiscent of The Amityville Horror, Sam meets her employer, the polite, yet vaguely sinister Mr. Ulman (played by the always great Tom Noonan).
At this point, Sam learns she won’t be babysitting, exactly, but instead caring for the Ulman’s elderly mother. Although she tries to duck the job, Ulman offers her too much money to resist and she stays, against the warning of her friend Megan (Greta Gerwig). Like Megan, we in the audience know Sam has made a mistake, something she realizes for herself as she snoops around the home. Suffice it to say, the Ulmans have plans for young Sam and, as plainly indicated in the title, they involve the Devil. Oh, did I mention there’s a lunar eclipse? Surely you can guess what’s in store for Sam.
The House of the Devil is a throwback to a simpler time for horror. From its period-appropriate props (over-sized Walkmans, rotary dial phones, etc.) and grainy film stock, to its amazing score of synth-heavy rock and spare, yet menacing violin and piano, the movie authentically mimics the look and sound of early 1980s horror. Where other directors might use the 1980s as an excuse to make their movie cheesy, however, Ti West understands that the best thing about 1980s horror wasn’t its schlockiness, but rather its emphasis on slow-burning suspense.
To this end, the film moves at an agonizing pace (and I mean that in the best way possible). As she wanders throughout the house doing seemingly normal things (filling her water bottle, reading a book), West keeps Sam’s face tightly framed, tricking the audience into thinking something could happen any time she turns her head. When we’re not in tight frames, West opts for wide establishing shots where the camera moves just slowly enough that we feel someone might be watching Sam from the shadows. It’s a potent mix of cinematography that manages to keep you on the edge of your seat. As the night wears on and Sam becomes more paranoid about her situation, we’re right there with her grasping our imaginary knife to fight off the inevitably bloody ending.
Speaking of the ending, it may be the one part of the movie that doesn’t work quite to perfection. Don’t get me wrong, the ending is still very scary (and very bloody), but after 70 minutes of hair-raising suspense, it’s nearly impossible to live up to the viewer’s sense of dread. It is worth noting that there is a major stylistic shift at the end of the movie, favoring intense visuals and shaky cinematography over the film’s previous camerawork, demonstrating West’s ability to use the camera both as a tool to bring us into the film and to throttle us once we’re there. Despite the film’s very minor letdown at the end (and it really is minor), West works in a satisfying, if somewhat predictable, twist for the last scene that will make you smile in spite of yourself.
To some horror aficionados – most likely fans of über-violent slasher remakes like Rob Zombie’s Halloween – The House of the Devil may be too slow with too little violence. For genre purists, however, there are very few things to not like about the movie. I can only hope that The House of the Devil, along with this summer’s intensely entertaining Drag Me to Hell and the little-Indie-that-could Paranormal Activity, represent a slight shift in the way Hollywood thinks about horror.
The House of the Devil has been in theaters since October 30th, though the film has been in release on Amazon Video and other On Demand services since the beginning of October. If you can, I would recommend seeing this movie in theaters. The cinematography, art design, and sound design are too good to waste on a small screen.