The House of the Devil never went into wide release, but it gained considerable buzz as being a loving tribute to the kind of film you might have rented from the horror section of your local mom-and-pop video shop in the 1980s (“Videoland” was mine, and it doubled as a retailer of TVs and VCRs). Or perhaps you just scared yourself silly imagining the horrors contained in that terrifying case you couldn’t stop yourself from looking at every time you came to pick up a movie.
Writer/director Ti West is no stranger to getting a lot of buzz out of limited releases-his feature film début, The Roost, received similarly positive reviews from both the online fan community and critics. While The House of the Devil doesn’t quite live up to its hype, it is a much more satisfying film that The Roost, which, while it showed potential, did little with the atmosphere it created and gave us completely unlikable, bickering idiots for protagonists.
College student and neat-freak good-girl Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) desperately wants to move out of the dorm she shares with her slutty, slovenly roommate Heather (Heather Robb, The Roost). Her prospective landlady (Dee Wallace, The Howling) agrees to take just the first month’s rent, but Sam still can’t afford it. When she sees a flier advertising a baby sitting opportunity, she calls from a pay phone-but oddly she gets called immediately back. Mr. Ullman (Tom Noonan, The Monster Squad) arranges to pick her up-and never shows.
Sam’s friend Megan (Greta Gerwig) is outraged, but when Ullman calls again, saying the other girl “didn’t work out”, Sam agrees to take the job over Megan’s objections. Megan drives Sam out to the isolated house where the Ullmans live, and, when Ullman explains that there isn’t a child, only Mrs. Ullman’s (Mary Woronov, Silent Night, Bloody Night) elderly mother. Mrs. Ullman wants someone on hand in case her mother needs help while the couple is out observing that night’s unusual lunar eclipse. Megan again tells Sam to abandon the job, but she refuses, because Mr. Ullman offers to pay her $400 to stay. Of course, not everything as it seems…
The House of the Devil does in fact manage to recall the bygone era of horror films delivered to your VCR via VHS tapes kept safely in enormous cardboard boxes, but less in the events and tone of the film and more in the period details. The soundtrack, the style of the credits, the tapping into 1980s paranoia about Satanic cults, and genre basics such as baby-sitters-in-peril and giving the protagonist a “male” nickname, just like many final girls of years past, are all ways in which West recalls horror cinema of the period. There are scenes that recall films from the slasher era-driving out to the Ullmans, for example, one can’t help but think of Laurie and Annie’s drive out to their respective babysitting jobs in Halloween. For the first two-thirds of the film, West avoids the mistakes of his previous film, keeping things tense and giving us likable characters. Unfortunately, after a truly great shock/scare scene, he draws out things out a bit too long-there’s only so many scenes of Sam meandering alone in a house that may or may not house evil, an old woman, or an evil old woman before you stop being tense and start waiting eagerly for something to happen. This is not to say the film fails, just that it goes on a bit too long, which, I suppose, might be exactly what you’d expect from one of those big-box VHS “classics” you studiously avoided in the video stores of years gone by. When the climax does finally come, it goes from something you could anticipate to being a bit more, as The House of the Devil veers out into new, odd territory. It doesn’t completely work, Sam’s assailants seem almost comically inept, for one thing, but it does lead to one of the better “it’s not over” endings I’ve seen in sometime.
In addition to some very solid scares (and at least one laugh out loud moment) and tension, The House of the Devil benefits greatly from a great cast. Genre fan faves Noonan and Woronov are appropriately creepy as the Ullmans, and even Wallace’s cameo avoids feeling like one of Rob Zombie’s “how many 1970s/1980s genre film faces can I cram into one movie” fan-boyism. Donahue is great as Sam, giving a us a “final girl” who is not just the usual “virginal/sweet good-girl” but who is a bit off, while Gerwig is perfect as Sam’s more assertive best friend. AJ Bowen is great in his part, every bit as creepy as Noonan and Woronov. West builds a solid horror film that doesn’t quite fit into standard horror categories, and it uses its low-budget and small cast to its advantage, resulting in a claustrophobic, tense film.