In a market that is genuinely oversaturated with the same thing wrapped in a different package, it does get difficult for horror fans to find a low-budget masterpiece that forces their jaws to drop to the floor. In the past, there were plenty of “straight-to-video” gems that still have a special place in horror-film history, but these days, it seems that there are constantly 30 or 40 new “horror films” a week, made by some guy you’ve never heard of, and released by a brand new indie production company that you’ve also never heard of. By looking at most of his catalog, Ti West, a man whose filmography includes gems like Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever, seems like he should fit right into this category along with that kid down the street who made a zombie movie a couple weeks ago. Much to everyone’s surprise though, West’s 2009 opus, The House of the Devil, gives true fans of suspense something that they have deserved for many years, and while it may not have been entirely inventive 30 years ago, to see a film like this come out in the past five years is really something that deserves notoriety.
Existing on a relatively simple plot, you are introduced to Samantha Hughes, played by Jocelin Donahue, a young college student looking for work in order to pay for a new place. After a slow opening sequence, plot exposition suddenly slaps you in the face, and Donahue comes across a flyer with a request horror fans know all too well, “In Need Of Babysitter.” After a bit of frustrating phone tag, our heroine sets out with her best friend to an isolated house far out in the woods. Upon their arrival, the audience is introduced to the owner of the house, Mr. Ullman, played by veteran actor Tom Noonan, whose filmography includes Wolfen, Manhunter, and The Monster Squad. Samantha then finds out that as opposed to housesitting for children, Mr. Ullman is requesting that she look after his mother, whom he swears will not even make herself known, while he and his wife attend a party for the lunar eclipse later that evening. After agreeing to take the job for what most of us would consider an exorbitant amount of money (even more so back in 1980, when the film is set), the Ullmans take their leave. Samantha then informs her friend that drove her all the way out to the house that the owners were uncomfortable with having both of them there, and that she could pick her up later that night. Despite her best friend’s apprehensive assessment of the situation, our protagonist decides to press on. By this point in the film most of the audience is already yelling at Donahue for being gullible enough not to realize a horror movie setup for a satanic cult when it’s waiving a severed goat’s head in her face, but God bless her anyway. Suffice it to say, after a while in the house, things begin to take a very serious turn south for Donahue, and the audience is left sitting face-to-face with every horror movie stereotype of a cult they can imagine. The climax of the film results in a bloody nightmare that, while some will feel it cannot make up for the slow pacing of the rest of the movie, most will agree that the payoff was well worth the wait.
Even with the age old horror setup of “babysitter alone in creepy old house,” House of the Devil does not fail to impress the veterans—or the newcomers—of the genre. Director West brings an almost overwhelming sense of impending doom with every shot after the homeowners leave the house. Menial time wasters like Donahue playing billiards or watching TV only seem to bring you closer and closer to the edge of your seat with no explanation as to why. Tension like this has not had serious play in horror movies since Hitchcock, and it feels wonderful to have it back. Instead of a constant barrage of blood and worn out jump scares, this film gets back to the idea that the actual event is often not half as scary as the buildup. An inventive sequence, in which the main character is doing nothing more than dancing around the almost empty house listening to her portable cassette player, puts the viewer ill at ease because they just “know” that something is going to happen, but the protagonist won’t be able to hear it. A moment in which the babysitter’s friend is doing nothing more than attempting to bum a light off of a random passerby on the road, resulting in her shocking death, succeeds in bringing the audience out of their mellow approach caused by the first half of the film into the uneasy second act. The audience spends the majority of the movie watching an unwitting co-ed inch closer and closer to her doom, knowing that there is nothing anyone can do to save her from this plight.
Everything in the film reeks of the 1980s, and it works so well that it’s hard to believe the film came out three years ago. It seems that the filmmakers thought of everything, from the clothes and the cars, to the hairstyles, to the strong soundtrack, which features the pop/rock hit “One Thing Leads to Another” by London rockers The Fixx. The film also prays on the “satanic panic” shockwave of the 1980s, and while it may be something that is lost on the younger viewers, those who understand the reference will definitely feel a resurgence in the dread of that era. In order to expound upon the myth that the film was in fact made in the early ’80s, the production company decided to run a limited promotion of the film, which appeared on VHS, and in the classic clamshell boxes we all remember from years of pilfering through video rental shelves. The acting also feels very much like that of the early low-budget ’80s horror films we all know and love. Instead of the feeling that these are second rate B-actors, the cast gives off the vibe that they are incredibly savvy with the type of film they’re doing. The characters show some complexity, and during the final payoff all of their motives are explained well. The dialogue and pacing are well done in accordance with the films that West is paying homage.
The actual filming style of The House of the Devil is really something to behold. The influences drawn from classic horror and suspense filmmakers of the time—such as Roman Polanski or John Carpenter—are very evident and are, in fact, welcomed with open arms. Modern horror is populated by directors who want to pay homage to their predecessors, but very few do a good enough job of bringing the spirit of these older films back to the silver screen. Instead of relying on modern conventional filming techniques, West gets back to the way it used to be done, and while this may annoy those who have grown used to crisp picture and stunning sound quality, most of us aren’t looking for the horror equivalent of a Michael Bay film. For example, West opted to make the entire film using a 16mm camera, as opposed to using the current standard of digital filming with additional effects added post-production. If one was to simultaneously play The House of the Devil alongside any one of the countless low-budget horror films of the early 1980s, almost no one would be able to tell the difference in when the two were made. The cinematography also fits seamlessly with its predecessors, with an abundance of lingering shots and extremely slow zoom-ins, as West casts away the current industry standards of fast-paced, “what the hell just happened?” shots that make it seem like the filmmakers drew inspiration from a strobe light. Instead, The House of the Devil relies on building the tension through plot devices and camera work that dwells on a shot so long that the audience feels like they may see too much.
Overall, The House of the Devil is well worth the time of any horror-movie buff interested in finding something new to rekindle the golden age of Hollywood scares. With few to no flaws in its design, few people will be disappointed in the current apex of Ti West’s career. No matter what subgenre of the horror industry you love, there is something that you can get from this movie, be it gore, suspense, or the disturbing nature of the film’s climax. Most any serious fan of the genre would agree that films like these far surpass the never-ending barrage of mind-numbing trite that audiences are inundated with these days. While it may not have all of the bells and whistles that audiences have grown accustomed to over the past decade, this film brings horror back to a time when scares were simply better than they are now.
Matt Oakley is a journalist and investigator of the unexplained. He has written articles for the Politomatic & Culture of Spirits Blogs, as well as Intrepid Magazine, and made appearances on several radio programs. Oakley currently writes, and is a radio personality for www.gralienreport.com and its sister radio show and podcast The Gralien Report.