Many horror films try to approximate a time and place in their filmmaking, but few films succeed in achieving those details like The House of the Devil does. Ti West’s satanic cult horror film is so specific in its technique that it seems like a forgotten gem from 1983. It’s filmed in 16mm film, which gives the film its appropriately grainy quality. It gets the tone just right. It’s all slow-building horror that turns the browns and oranges of the period decor into a claustrophobic environment of constant tension. It uses zooms to cue the viewer to small details, to shrink down the world of the film until we’re stuck inside the head of the protagonist as the mounting tensions threaten to overwhelm her. Of course, all this attention to the tone and technique of 1980s horror films would be useless if The House of the Devil wasn’t scary, and luckily it is.
The House of the Devil follows college sophomore Samantha Hughes (Jocelin Donahue) who takes an unconventional babysitting job at a remote mansion on the night of a lunar eclipse. Her best friend, Megan (Greta Gerwig), doesn’t trust Mr. Ulman (Tom Noonan), the man who hires Samantha for the job, but Samantha needs the money and is willing to overlook her misgivings for the hefty sum Mr. Ulman is willing to pay. Of course, as the night drags on and Samantha stumbles across one or other inconsistency in Mr. and Mrs. Ulman’s (Mary Woronov) story as she explores the large house, she comes closer to uncovering the satanic truth hiding in the mansion’s attic.
The House of the Devil thrives on dread and tension. Trying to replicate the low-rent horror pictures of the 1980s, Ti West builds suspense throughout the entirety of the film, only revealing the truth of the Ulmans and their large mansion in the final minutes. He only uses jump-scares—the fallback of the modern horror film—in a couple instances, and both times are fakeouts intended to distract the viewer from the real scare. In many ways the film is a slow-burn, building tension throughout the entire picture, never deflating it, never allowing the permeating dread to slip from the viewer’s mind. It’s not all horror all the time but it is certainly horrific.
The film’s early scenes focus on Samantha’s attempts to procure the babysitting job in order to pay for a new apartment. She waits on the steps of a campus building and has pizza with Megan, complaining about the strangeness of Mr. Ulman’s phone conversation. The campus grounds and dorm building where she’s currently living are conspicuously vacant, adding to the film’s all-encompassing atmosphere of dread. Even the pizza parlour doesn’t feel right. West lingers on the statue of a chef in the corner of the parlour for a moment too long. It cues the viewer’s discomfort. There are no safe havens in The House of the Devil. Every location adds to the tension. The suspense builds slowly at first, but it builds from the very first frame.
When the film finally springs the reveal on the viewer, it goes appropriately gonzo. Blood gushes in the gallons. You could say The House of the Devil veers off the rails, but that’d be stating the obvious. The madness of the finale is the point. Evil has been unleashed and the tension of the previous 80 minutes bursts. There’s a witty tag of an ending that closes in a freeze frame, with the final credits playing overtop the image. Even the credits are in the correct yellow font to recreate the 1980s look. Ti West thought of everything.
8 out of 10
The House of the Devil (2009, USA)
Written and directed by Ti West; starring Jocelin Donahue, Tom Noonan, Mary Woronov, Greta Gerwig, A. J. Bowen, and Dee Wallace.