There was a moment while I was watching The House of the Devil that I had to verify that I was seeing a movie released in 2009. Writer and Director Ti West has gone to great lengths - successfully - to make this picture appear as though it was made in the late 70s/early 80s. A few days ago, I watched The Legend of Hell House (1973) (and blogged about it HERE - in case you missed it) and the opening title shots from both films are identical in style, even matching the font color (comparison shots below).
It's not just the look of this picture that is a throwback, but also the acting, the dialogue, the tone, the pacing, the set decoration, everything. If it wasn't for Greta Gerwig (who is great -as always) being in it and Mary Woronov (Rock 'n' Roll High School, Eating Raoul) and Tom Noonan (The Last Action Hero) looking their age, I would have been completely sold on the idea that I was watching a film from a bygone era. That's part of the charm of this film, and props to Ti West for not being overly "wink, wink audience look what we're doing here" with the style but instead the movie just is what it is and doesn't try to bring attention to the stylistic choices. I was sold!
|So sweet. So Innocent. So doomed!|
The House of the Devil introduces us to Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) a bright college student who desperately wants to move into her own place and has found the perfect apartment but only has a weekend to come up with the cash to pay the first month's rent. The landlady is E.T.'s Dee Wallace who takes a shine to Samantha stating that she reminds her of her own daughter. I'm just going to assume that the daughter Dee speaks of is Gertie because, why not?
|Sure, you can move in. Just be aware of the additional extra-terrestrial security deposit.|
You already know Samantha is a decent, likable person by her clothes, her demeanor and enhanced by the fact that when she shows up at her dorm room, there is the sock on the handle and sounds of sex from within. Her roommate is obviously a partier and a slob which only increases Samantha's desire to be on her own and our desire for her to succeed. She finds a posting for a babysitting job, but when she calls the number, the voice at the other end is strange and tells her to meet him by the student affairs office - but then is a no-show. Desperate and depressed, she eats pizza with her BFF Greta Gerwig who suggests they rip down all the campus postings for the gig in retaliation for being stood up. Nope, Samantha doesn't want to stoop to that. Returning to her dorm room she discovers the man has called again and wants to hire her after all. The need for cash speaks volumes and she agrees to head over there that night.
|Dumb teenagers. They make this so easy.|
It's an unique weekend thanks to a lunar eclipse that is about to take place that night around midnight (one of the many indications that things are going to go very badly for young Samantha). Gerwig drives her out to the large and intimidating house (oh, oh) in the middle of nowhere (not good!). Gerwig also shows Samantha that she pulled down all the notices anyway, which resulted in her getting the gig (good friend - she just sentenced Samantha to her doom). Noonan is put off by the fact there are two girls and tells Samantha that he can only pay for one. He also surprises her by announcing he doesn't even have a child but that the job is to mind his elderly mother-in-law in order to appease his overly paranoid wife (Woronov). Right there Samantha should bolt, but Noonan is desperate (oh this is going to go SO badly for her) and starts pulling out $100 bills to make her change her mind (she's doomed) - a huge red flag considering moments ago he stated he could not pay for "two" people but suddenly he's willing to pay her $400. Gerwig is the smart one here and wants Samantha to leave with her like NOW, but the money speaks volumes and she decides to stick it out. Needless to say there is more than meets the eye to this babysitting job, and Samantha spends most of the time snooping around the creepy house, jumping at noises and eventually finding the nastiness that has been awaiting her all this time.
|Oh sure, I'll drive you to the isolated, creepy house where there is sure to be evil waiting for you.|
This picture has a deliberately paced, slow and tense build-up that may bore some (especially in the 21st century where horror movies tend to cut to the chase immediately), but kept me on the edge of my seat. The house is dark and ominous, and there are more than several indications that evil forces are looming, waiting to make Samantha's life miserable behind one of the many room doors. She is somewhat smart - in horror picture terms at least - when at one point it looks as though she is going to venture into the dark basement, but shrugs and abandons the idea.
|I bring a huge knife with me to every babysitting job.|
Also, Samantha is on her own entirely throughout this picture. There is no pointless boyfriend or potential love interest to come in and complicate things or try to "save the day". It is just Samantha using her own wits, fighting to survive.
In the midst of all this creeping around is a shocking moment of violence that happens so quickly that it is effectively jolting. Sure, you know that something bad is going to happen, but not quite that fast and so nasty.
|Mother! Oh God, mother! Blood! Blood!|
The score - composed by Jeff Grace - adds to the tension perfectly and with each cue our worry for Samantha's well being becomes more and more intense. Also by setting the movie in a past era, the removal of cell phones and the Internet increases Samantha's isolation and imminent danger.
|I get extra pay for this, right?|
There is finally that point when all hell breaks loose (yeah I just went there) and it is a great moment that fulfills the promise of that long build-up. The wait is well worth it!
|Don't forget to brush your teeth and floss after chewing on human flesh.|
I think that some viewers may get very frustrated with this picture because it takes so long to get to the final action (well over an hour - with the exception of that one incident I raved about earlier), but for me it was a selling point. Thanks to this, Ti West has made it onto my list of directors to watch. I'm now very excited to see his films The Innkeepers (2011 - which I have lined up for this round of Horror Movie a Day), The Sacrament (2013) as well as segments in V/H/S (2012 - also on the agenda for this year's Horror Movie a Day) and The ABC's of Death (2012).