When I first watched this slow-burn horror flick, I was 100% sure it was from the 80’s: The hair, the cars, the Sony Walkman–simply the way the film looked. I had pressed play on a whim, with no prior research, and so after I had finished the movie, I was shocked to learn that it was released in 2009!
Written, directed, and edited by Ti West, The House of the Devil is a meticulously crafted homage to horror films of the 80’s, a decade which saw America in a state of “Satanic Panic,” essentially a large-scale fear of satanism due to the media escalating claims of satanic ritual abuse, most of which were unsubstantiated. It didn’t help that there were many other things to be scared about at the time, too. The rise of two-income households led to worries over sketchy babysitters and child abductions, AIDS was spreading across the nation, cyanide-laced Tylenol and Halloween candies were killing kids, and everyone was afraid of clowns, thanks to John Wayne Gacy and, later, the publication of Stephen King’s It 1. In House of the Devil, West manages to capture some of this societal trepidation while creating a palpable amount of suspense and nailing the look of early 80’s horror.
Shot on 16mm, giving it a retro, unsaturated appearance, the film stars Jocelin Donahue, who plays a college student (Samantha) in need of money for a deposit on her new apartment. When Sam answers an ad from a man who is looking for a babysitter (Mr. Ulman, played by Tom Noonan), he asks to meet her, but then stands her up. Mysteriously, Ulman reaches her again by calling the payphone outside of her dorm. He apologizes, and Sam has her friend Megan (Greta Gerwig) drop her off at his large Victorian house in the middle of a deep, dark wood. Megan is wary of the peculiar Mr. Ulman after he admits that it’s not a baby Sam will be looking after, but his elderly mother, whom he insists will be no trouble at all. Despite Megan’s protests, Sam accepts the job, but only after negotiating a huge raise. Mr. Ulman and his wife leave, giving Sam the number of a pizza place she can order from.
Until the last quarter of the movie, we mostly watch Sam as she wanders about the house, watches tv, plays some pool, and dances around with her Walkman, no grandma in sight. I was kind of hoping for a Risky Business parody during all the dancing (you know the scene: when Tom Cruise slides down the hall in his skivvies to Bob Seeger’s “Old Time Rock n Roll”), but Donahue’s bouncing around to the The Fixx’s “One Thing Leads to Another” is fun too (and yes, I did my research and confirmed that The Fixx’s hit was released after Tom Cruise’s dance, though only by a few days!). Things are seeming to go swimmingly for Sam, but we know it’s a general rule that good times don’t last for babysitters in horror movies. She becomes concerned when Megan doesn’t answer her phone, and then more so when she finds a revealing photograph. Also, there are some strange noises coming from upstairs…What’s grandma up to?
It might sound boring, and you might very well be bored if you’re expecting jump scares and gore galore, but the terror in this movie is waiting for the scare more than the scare itself. The deafening quiet and sparse soundtrack—if you can even call it a soundtrack, it’s mostly subtle noises—creates heart-wrenching tension. The simple promise of the title, The House of the Devil, sows the seeds of anticipation, and when the “devil” part isn’t elucidated for the bulk of the runtime, you’re not even sitting on the edge of your couch anymore–you’re sitting past that: on air. I was worried my heart was going to explode when, finally, the action began, and boy was it worth the wait–though the wait was worth itself.
It was simultaneously a relief and a shock to finish House of the Devil. It might not be for those people who like the next five minutes of a movie spoiled for them every five minutes just so they can know what to expect (we all have that friend), because the person spoiling the plot for them wouldn’t have anything big to say for a while. It’s definitely for those who can appreciate the incline on a rollercoaster, for those who are hankering for some 80’s nostalgia, for those who need some cardio, and for those who just want another worth-the-watch horror flick.
Here’s your 5-second plot summary:
That’s not the pizza guy…
Where is this pizza?
Oh wait, it was the pizza guy!
This is some nasty pizza.
That was not the pizza guy.