Reviewed by Paul McCannibal
Starring AJ Bowen, Dee Wallace, Greta Gerwig, Jocelin Donahue, Mary B. McCann, Mary Woronov, Tom Noonan
Directed by Ti West
The idea of spending a night alone in an old dark house in the woods isn’t exactly a novel concept for a horror film, but then, what is wrong with an established form done par excellence? If you get spooked by the sound of creaking floors, long shadows cast through staircases, and strange phone calls from unidentified creepy people, The House of the Devil is going to infect you with those paranoid willies that send you peeking out the window into the darkness and double checking to make sure you’ve locked all the doors.
Ti West obviously adores the simpler times of straightforward horror movies from the 70’s and 80’s. There are no contemporary hyper-speed zombie hordes on display here, no opportunistic torture porn, no mangled editing with shutter-angle camera manipulation, no excessive shaky cam. And that’s a good thing. The House of the Devil is all about mood, tension, and buildup, and it delivers in spades on all of these levels.
The premise is dead simple. College girl Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) needs some quick cash to pay for a new apartment she lucked out on scoring. She finds a want-ad for a babysitter on a community bulletin board and calls the number on it from a payphone. There’s something really odd and evasive about the voice on the other end of the phone and Samantha is rightly a little weirded out, but the promise of ample quick cash ends up outweighing the potential risks. Soon Samantha is getting offered work as a caretaker in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Ulman, played with genuine shifty malevolence by Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov. Samantha’s best friend Megan (played amusingly by Greta Gerwig) drives her to the Ulman home and is, understandably, very reluctant to leave her there.
Once the Ulman’s have left for their evening soiree, it’s all about the mysteries that lurk in the shadowy corridors of the Ulman home. The mood is extremely jumpy, but Samantha puts on a brave face, distracting herself by listening to her walkman, ordering pizza, and watching the tube. But those bumps in the night persist, and Samantha is gradually lured into a macabre Satanic nightmare channeled straight from the grimoire of Dennis Wheatley …
Some viewers I watched this with were grumbling about the “payoff” at the end, saying it was too little too late, but I strongly disagree. It’s very difficult to top the kind of lingering unease Ti West stacks to the roof in the bulk of this film, and he wisely chose to wrap it up before it dragged or got stupid. I suppose it then comes down to a matter of personal taste. For viewers who truly appreciate atmospheric horror, the journey is definitely the ultimate reward in this film. That’s not to say there isn’t any memorable mayhem. There are a couple of really good chair-jumpers and shock moments, but they’re carefully spaced for maximum impact.
The details count for a lot – the opening and closing credits are treated lovingly with an 80’s horror aesthetic that is absolutely perfect. The music and sound design are stellar. The retro look and setting are flawless – it’s so well crafted that I bet you could air this and some viewers might not even initially pick up on the fact that it was made in 2009. And having it set in the 80’s thankfully flushes one of the most annoying tropes a lot of modern horror concepts are unfortunately bound to – the narrative cliché of doing away with the cell phone.
The House of the Devil is the best “things that go bump in the night” genre film in a long time. By all means go and see it at the theatre if you can, but I think it would be every bit as good (or maybe even better) to see it at home, at night, alone, which is something I’ll be doing as soon as I can get my hands on a copy of this amazing flick.
4 1/2 out of 5
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