The House of the Devil

The House of the Devil (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★

Although this lo-fi horror picture does not push the satanic cult subgenre in new directions, its back-to-basics approach is a welcome change from the more ostentatious, loud, try-hard offerings from less disciplined filmmakers. Writer-director Ti West chooses an economical route: tell the story straight from the moment our heroine takes on a babysitting job up until she has lost everything—which unfolds in just under twenty-four hours. Although the pacing is slow on purpose, there are plenty of details worthy of soaking in should one be willing to look.

Before Samantha (Jocelin Donahue who delivers a terrific performance) sets foot in the house of horrors, we get to know her as a college sophomore who is in desperate need of cash. We learn precisely how much is in her bank account and how much she needs come Monday (the story takes place on a Wednesday) in order to secure a new place. We also get to appreciate why Sam wishes so badly to move out of her dorm; her roommate is a slob and doesn’t care that she gets in the way of other people’s space and time. Greta Gerwig plays Megan, Sam’s best friend who is full of personality.

The film commands a certain look of creepiness, a misty look about it that reminds me of horror films from the late 1970s and early 1980s. This is especially noticeable of scenes shot outdoors. As Sam walks around campus before Christmas break, there is barely anyone around. The camera functions almost like an onlooker, perhaps even a stalker, as she makes her way to a bulletin board, a payphone, her bed, to the restroom where she cries. But taking on this perspective is not meant to be scary or alarming. On the contrary, I felt it captures how lonely Sam must feel sometimes. She’s the quiet, bookish type, always with her walkman on. We wish to protect her because we know what she’s about to walk into.

We meet the employers, Mr. and Mrs. Ulman (Tom Noonan, Mary Woronov), and no effort is made to cover up the fact that they are indeed up to no good. West has fun with these suspicious figures, he at the very least six-foot-five with his cane and she with her stern expression and rather… curious way of phrasing certain things. The assignment is supposed to be minimal work: Just hang out downstairs, order pizza, and be wary of emergencies. Four hours of Sam’s time for $400. Megan claims it is too good to be true. She has no idea how right she is.

Much of the babysitting job involves Sam exploring the house. This is when most viewers who are expecting constant jolts will likely end up frustrated or disappointed. I admired its restraint. Although we hear strange noises, it makes sense that Sam goes to investigate because it is her job to make sure that everything is all right with the person she must care for. There is a door she dares not open, but a masterstroke involves the writer-director revealing to the audience what exactly is behind it. This is a classic case of choosing suspense over horror. To choose horror over suspense would be for Sam to open that door. She reacts and we react, too. She never does. But because we know and she doesn’t, we wriggle in our seats.

“The House of the Devil” is ninety percent setup and ten percent payoff. But that ten percent is memorable, visceral, violent, and cathartic. It is at this point that West proves his project is not simply a nostalgia trip. The denouement is modern and in-your-face but never gratuitous. Chaos ensues but the filmmaker remains control of his craft (none of that camera acrobatics). It is confident from the eye-catching opening credits right down to the unsettling final shot. Here is a movie that wallows in quiet. But when it gets loud, literally and metaphorically, it is almost deafening.

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