Review: ‘The House of the Devil’

Remember when horror truly meant horror?  Director Ti West does, and in The House of the Devil he has taken considerable pleasure in reminding us what this over-saturated genre can achieve when executed properly.  West, not yet 30, has directed five features, and after misfiring into Alan Smithee territory with a sequel to Eli Roth’s Cabin Fever, the young filmmaker has found his groove.  The House… is a squeamish delight, a celebration of everything great about a genre that was at its unequivocal peak in the eighties, and it excels in utilising the best aspects of that golden era to full effect.  It doesn’t amount to more than a solid slasher flick, but then it doesn’t try to.  It just ticks all the boxes – and how.

West, who also serves on writing and editing duties, is keen to emulate the glory days of horror, and all is present and correct: from the dubious claim that story is based on true events, to the archaic opening titles (with the date in roman numerals) with heavy synth accompaniment, to the archetypal creepy old house and quintessential ‘scream queen’ in the form of a strong lead performance from newcomer Jocelin Donahue. 

Everything has been tuned to create an authentic 80s horror experience.  It’s been shot on 16mm to give it a more legitimate grainy feel, the lighting and camera angles you might find in a John Carpenter movie, and there are plenty of nods to pop culture of the time.  Donahue’s Walkman, skimpy jeans and big, fluffy hair are ever-present throughout.  If you didn’t know otherwise, you could be forgiven for thinking it really was made twenty years ago.  But the retro feel is never overplayed. Eighties nostalgia has been popular almost since the decade ended, but The House of the Devil steers clear of pastel colours or legwarmers.  The most significant influence is the plotting, pacing and themes that typified the best of the movies from that era.

This is a film built on suspense.  Modern horrors, like the increasingly absurd Saw franchise, rely on frenetic, caffeine-fuelled editing and extreme gore-porn from the get-go, assuming their young audience has an attention span that can be measured in seconds.  The House of the Devil builds the anticipation so that save for one scene, we don’t see any blood or screaming until the third act.  This equates to an hour’s worth of tension building, an underlying current of expectation so heavy laden that when the inevitable payoff arrives, it is full-blown, explosive and – to borrow a horror cliché – spine tingling.  The pacing will be offputting for those more attuned to instant gratification, but director West displays extraordinary patience in deriving half the entertainment from waiting for the climax.

This being a genre pic, it’s unabashedly unoriginal.  Sam (Donahue) is a broke college student who accepts a baby sitting job from a sinister old couple who live in a creaky old house in the middle of nowhere, on the night of a total lunar eclipse (a neat plot device to enable pitch-black darkness).  Sam discovers that she is actually baby-sitting an elderly mother, and the couple are actually satanists who intend to sacrifice her to the dark Lord, tapping into a common theme from the late seventies and eighties.  Indeed, plotwise it’s all very familiar.  There is a formula being followed here, undoubtedly – but what a formula!  It’s horror in its purest, most straightforward, unapologetic guise.

And it’s genuinely terrifying.  The long build-up is so acute, and the cacophony of Psycho-esque music so intense, that you’re left with a gripping, breathtaking, disturbing conclusion, a fine example of truly visceral filmmaking.  If, like I did, you watch this film in a cinema (and I implore that, if you get the chance, do), by the end you will find yourself stumbling blindly back into the daylight, somewhat shaken and battered, needing a few moments to readjust to reality.  That’s what a decent horror flick is all about: that visceral, gut-wrenching experience.

There will be some who argue that The House of the Devil is a pointless exercise. Why watch a movie pretending to be a movie from the eighties when you could, y’know, just watch a movie from the eighties?  Some might find the references to its roots a little too knowing, particularly in the rather more corny dialogue from Tom Noonan as the evil Mr Ulman, assuring Sam at the start of the night that she will have a “painless evening”.

But this is a love letter to the genre from West, a celebration of what makes it good and an valiant effort to bring successful storytelling techniques of days gone by back into the modern fold.  Avoiding the overtly ironic kitsch of Tarantino’s weaker moments, The House… is a straightforward, no-nonsense homage from a clearly dedicated fan.  It may have limited appeal; younger viewers who don’t know or remember the original slew of slasher movies will lose interest quickly, and it could never reach universal acclaim – but this was never going to be the kind of film you take your mother to see.  This is a film for connoisseurs.  Horror fans rejoice – there’s life in the old dog yet.

★★

A version of this review originally appeared on ObsessedWithFilm.com.

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