The House of the Devil (2009)
The 80s are a favorite period for many horror fans, producing as they did films as diverse and disturbing as A Nightmare on Elm Street, Hellraiser, Child’s Play, and a whole range of brutal slasher films that indulged backlash male fears and, occasionally, a few feminist ones as well. The contemporary horror fan’s obsession with the 80s has some darkness to it as well, given the obsession with weaponized maniacs murdering bare-breasted women and prizing the Final Girl as the ultimate virginal fantasy. But there are times when 80s nostalgia produces something really unique, as is the case with Ti West’s The House of the Devil, a deliberate throwback to the decade that immerses its viewer in the chills and thrills of slow-burn violence.
Jocelin Donahue is Samantha, a sophomore at an upstate college who longs to move into a proper apartment. When she spots a flyer asking for a babysitter, she answers it, and heads out to a lonely house far from campus on the night of a full lunar eclipse. There she meets Mr. Ulman (Tom Noonan) and his wife (Mary Woronov), and learns that there are no children to look after – the couple just want someone to stay in the house for the evening in order to keep an eye on Mr. Ulman’s mother, a bed-bound old woman asleep upstairs. The whole setup is a bit creepy, but Samantha needs the money and agrees.
We all know where this is going, but The House of the Devil takes its sweet time in getting there. The opening act leading up to the arrival at the house takes up a good bit of runtime, but somehow the slow burn isn’t boring. This is a leisurely film that knows how to develop the tension, rather than getting straight to the violence. And that’s the film’s strength – rather than rushing into what’s ultimately a sparse and somewhat predictable narrative, there’s an inherent enjoyment of the development of the fear, as the audience waits for the killer, the cult, the ghost, or goblin to come into frame. Some viewers who demand more gore and less tension might find it dull, but the time that West takes to develop his story is time well-spent. There are momentary bursts of violence separated by long sections of Samantha ordering pizza, turning on the TV, investigating weird noises coming from the upstairs. As the narrative unfolds at its own pace, the viewer can only sit back and watch, secure in the knowledge that something is going to happen, held in thrall by not knowing when.
Donahue is a big part of what makes The House of the Devil work. She’s a throwback to the Final Girls of the 1980s, recalling Jamie Lee Curtis or Dee Wallace (who has a bit part as a landlady at the beginning of the film), innocent without being weak or even particularly naïve. Although the situation is creepy, the film takes care to develop reasons for staying at the house that are believable and that therefore don’t prompt the audience to dismiss her as stupid, or the film for concocting excuses to get to the scary bits. Given that Donahue has to spend most of her onscreen time alone, it’s a testament to her presence that The House of the Devil never bores, and that the audience can care about her character fairly quickly.
The House of the Devil won’t be for everyone. It’s very much an 80s film, even if made in 2009, with a self-seriousness that avoids any hint of the campy. As such, as it’s incredibly loving film, a movie that feels like an homage without attempting to be more knowing than the films it references, that tries and largely succeeds in approximating one of horror’s most famous periods. But it’s still slow, more interested in the creation of tension than in giving the viewer blood and guts. It works, thanks in no small measure to West’s use of old-school aesthetics in the creation of the house itself, and the occasional hints of what is actually going on just enough to the audience on their toes.
The House of the Devil is available to stream on Shudder.