Director: Ti West.
Writer: Ti West.
Cast: Jocelin Donahue, Greta Gerwig, Tom Noonan, Mary Woronov.
Running time: 91 Minutes.
Horror is a tricky genre to be successful in with mainstream audiences without continuous jump scares (trust me, they get boring fast) or over the top gore. One of two things is required in order to pull off a horror flick: a creepy location and/or a creepy villain. Luckily in the case of The House of the Devil, it has both.
Samantha is a sophomore at university and is in desperate need of money to pay for her new apartment, the perfect opportunity presents itself in the form of a babysitting flyer she finds on campus. What a quick and easy way to make money she thinks. Obviously with this being a horror film, there’s a catch. Is it the child from Hell in store for Samantha? Actually, it’s something far worse. Upon arrival at the Ulman’s large countryside home Samantha discovers that they don’t actually have a child. Instead Samantha will be caring for Mrs. Ulman’s elderly mother, though she’s told she probably won’t have to do anything but sit and watch television for a few hours. This still makes Samantha apprehensive to take on the job, but all is well when her pay is massively increased. Bad move, Samantha. Bad move.
From the get go the viewer might have an inkling as to what lies ahead for Samantha as the film opens with some title cards spouting statistics on the belief among American citizens of the 1980s in the existence of satanic cults. Even so, the film takes its time in revealing the ulterior motives of the Ulman’s. Slowly building tension is a technique often forgotten in modern horror, even though this film is proof it can be used quite effectively. The majority of horror releases in the last decade rely either on gory, over the top death sequences that are often unintentionally funny (we’re looking at you Saw), or else they have as many false alarm jump scares as possible. Boring! In this sense, The House of the Devil is a breath of fresh air for the genre.
The viewer sits in anticipation for the worst as Samantha wanders around her new surroundings. The anticipation is often better than the payoff itself in horror movies, though the payoff here is actually great. The film’s main selling point has to be the unbearable tension it builds, especially leading up to the third act. It’s rare to find a modern horror film that takes its time in unveiling its scares, and does so with such effectiveness. You feel the same fear Samantha does as she slowly begins to realise that she may have a different purpose for the night than that of a babysitter.
Fans of the 1968 horror masterpiece Rosemary’s Baby will be pleasantly surprised with the little nods to the film scattered throughout. Another film which made efficient use of tension. It’s clear that Ti West is a fan of horror cinema, and has set out to make a movie the predecessors would be proud of.
The casting for the film is perfect. Jocelin Donahue makes for a more sympathetic and headstrong character than the usual genre film allows. Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov play the Ulman’s with such menacing undertones that it’s not hard to shudder when they’re onscreen. Also, fans of HBO’s Girls should listen out for a cameo voice performance by the show’s lead, Lena Dunham.
Verdict: Builds tension to an almost unbearable point, but with such a sinister and bloody payoff the wait is definitely worth it. The House of the Devil borrows tropes from all the right places in classic horror cinema, and avoids the trappings of the genre. This is how scary movies are done right.