Yet another of this year’s homage-facsimiles, The House of the Devil forgoes campy self-awareness in favor of reverential faithfulness—and in doing so, implicitly critiques contemporary horror cinema. With its cinematography combining unadorned realism and angular expressionism, and its title sequence emblazoned with yellow title cards and marked by synth music, freeze frames, and sudden zooms, Ti West’s latest mimics ’80s horror flicks with a straight face. Its rhythms, dialogue, and period detail are so finely attuned to the style of its chosen era that, were it not for a technical dexterity generally absent from its predecessors, the film might pass as an exhumed relic.
West clearly knows his stuff, but isn’t out to flaunt it with a smirk, and thus there’s great pleasure to be had from his introductory passages, in which college sophomore Samantha (Margot Kidder lookalike Jocelin Donahue) rents a house (from Dee Wallace’s landlady) and, strapped for cash, responds to a campus flyer for a babysitter. West, however, doesn’t rush his heroine into a situation that—as confirmed by the title, and the fact that when she calls about the gig, it’s Tom Noonan’s sinister voice that answers—is destined for horror, laying out Samantha’s friendship with Megan (Greta Gerwig) and her dire financial motivations with methodical patience. “I promise to make this as painless for you as possible,” says Mr. Ulman (Noonan) in convincing Samantha to accept the job, a comment rife with black humor. Yet West plays his material not for giggles, but for slow-burn chills, employing languorous long takes and pitched, frequently low-positioned camera setups to build a sense of unreal terror. Upon arriving at the rural Ulman estate, located right past a cemetery, Samantha learns that the job involves watching an elderly woman while Mr. Ulman and his wife (Mary Woronov) enjoy the evening’s historic full-moon eclipse.
As the tale unfolds, a debt to not only ’80s horror films, but also Rosemary’s Baby, The Amityville Horror, and Hammer’s gothic ’70s classics also emerges: food (specifically, pizza) is a source of fetid disgust; murderous mysteries are discovered in the remote mansion’s nooks and crannies; and Satanism is revealed as a malevolent force with which Samantha must ultimately reckon. Before that confrontation can occur, however, House of the Devil proves content to simply spend time in Samantha’s company. And though she’s a rather one-dimensional audience proxy, West’s leisurely depiction of her exploring the Ulman residence—highlighted by a sequence in which she dances about, cumbersome walkman affixed to hip, listening to the Fixx’s “One Thing Leads to Another”—allows his story’s dread to slowly creep under one’s skin.
If West’s unhurried pace can occasionally be trying, his refusal to indulge in cheap jolt scares or force his protagonist to behave in ludicrously nonsensical ways—aside, of course, from the never-quite-plausible decision to accept any offer from Noonan’s cane-wielding weirdo—seems not only a welcome antidote to today’s current spate of disposable hack-and-slashers, but something of a direct rebuke. The House of the Devil elicits fear not from knife-wielding maniacs, but, rather, from a sense of macabre unease that spews forth from, among other moments, Mrs. Ulman’s unseemly, sex-fixated initial conversation with Samantha, or the preceding shot of the girls being greeted at the front door by Noonan, their unsettled looks directed upward at an imposing face cut off by West’s frame. Throughout, the director employs conventions with an assuredness that’s never tainted by look-at-me egotism, his fidelity to the genre marked by an admiration that carries through to the very, bloody end, which—true to its forbearers—is mildly anticlimactic, resorting as it does to images of monstrous satanic evil that can’t quite match what one’s own imagination had already cooked up. No matter. As evidenced by the care taken with its establishing chapters, House of the Devil knows that, even with regard to hell, the destination isn’t half as terrifying as the journey.