“In 1983, financially struggling college student Samantha Hughes takes a strange babysitting job that coincides with a full lunar eclipse. She slowly realizes her clients harbor a terrifying secret, putting her life in mortal danger.” — IMDb
The House of the Devil is one of director Ti West’s first feature films (he had two under his belt before this one), and it’s a brilliant one. West is already carefully watched within the horror genre, and he’s swayed me over to his side with this film. Previously, I was split — he directed one of my least favorite shorts in The ABCs of Death (I called it “the laziest of the bunch”), but my favorite short in V/H/S. The House of the Devil was released in 2009 but takes place in 1983 and, man, if you didn’t know better, you’d swear it was filmed then, too.
It follows Samantha (Jocelin Donahue), a college student who is trying to do whatever she can to get some extra cash and move into her own place, away from her obnoxious dorm roommate. Her best friend, Megan (Greta Gerwig), drives her out to a babysitting gig off-campus which seems too good to be true, and, well, it turns out it is.
** SPOILERS! **
What impressed me most about this movie is just how much West nailed the 80s vibe. From the opening credits to the music (a mix of a perfectly atmospheric score almost reminiscent of John Carpenter with some perfectly placed 80s rock hits, plus the theme song which is freakily close to “Moving in Stereo”) to the use of 16mm film to give it an accurate aesthetic… it was just perfect. It had that spot on 1980s slasher vibe without taking it into the realm of being almost a spoof, which can be a tough balance to strike.
I mean, really, it’s hard to describe exactly why, but the shots are just perfect, both in their accuracy to classic 80s “scream queen” films and just being pleasant to watch. Nothing felt out of place, nothing seemed to drag on too long, the shots were creative without becoming over-the-top, and it was meticulous without becoming too stiff. The shot of Megan looking out the windows as the camera pans back… the entire sequence of her dancing around the house… her creeping up the stairs with the shadow of her, knife in hand, moving along the wall behind her. All fantastic.
The jump scares were efficient AND sparse, which is something that is becoming all too rare nowadays. The hand appearing out of the darkness to light Megan’s cigarette made me physically jump, and the doorbell ringing as Samantha is nervously searching the house was perfect. For that matter, the mysterious man with the lighter (who we later find out is the couple’s son) shooting Megan COMPLETELY blew me away (pun kind of intended).
Tom Noonan as the mysterious Mr. Ulman was fantastic (as he always is), and Mary Woronov as his wife was also great. Both of them conveyed the perfect level of creepiness without being overly dramatic… just enough weirdness to give you a healthy amount of suspicion without actually making their intentions known.
It was one of the few movies I’ve seen where it took over an hour for any action to happen (literally… maybe an hour and 10 minutes), but the suspense was palpable. I was just enjoying the mystery, the build-up, watching every corner and shadow to see what might be lurking.
Honestly, the movie was almost perfect until the crescendo… when we finally find out that Mr. and Mrs. Ulman are part of a Satanic cult and Samantha is the centerpiece for a bloody ritual in the attic. I don’t know if it was because it was all crammed into the last 15 minutes or just how unbelievable it all became (Mother being a grotesque, deformed creature who forces Samantha to drink her blood, Samantha conveniently escaping from ALL of the ropes tying her down, waving the knife haphazardly in defense and managing to slice the son’s neck PERFECTLY open), but it kind of took me out of it. Though I thought her suicide in the cemetery was pretty awesome, and the ending was just uncomfortable enough.
Even though it seemed like some direction was lost in the last moments, this was still an incredibly solid film, and recommended for sure.