House of the Devil (2009)
House of the Devil is pretty much the ultimate ‘your mileage may vary’ movie. It’s a dedicated homage to 70’s and 80’s horror films, which a lot of people aren’t fond of, and it’s also very deliberately paced, which will leave some people bored. Myself, having only been born in the 80’s, I don’t have a particular love of the horror movies from that decade, although it did see quite a few great ones produced. Nevertheless, I love this movie.
Needing $300 for the rent on her new off-campus apartment, college sophomore Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) responds to a advertisement she sees for a babysitter (or baby$itter, as it says). She gets called in on short notice, being offered double the money for her troubles. When she and her friend Megan arrive, she’s a little weirded out when she’s told by the Mr. Ulman (Tom Noonan) that she wouldn’t actually be watching a child, but his mother-in-law. to make up for the deception, he offers her even more money, and they settle on $400. Despite Megan’s misgivings (it seems too good to be true; he’s Tom freaking Noonan), Sam needs the money too badly to say no. Saying anything further about the plot would just be spoiling it, but the bulk of the movie is Sam hanging around the house, waiting for the Ulmans to return home. Needless to say, things are not what she thinks they are.
That may not sound like much of a description, but House of the Devil is a slow burn, letting the tension and dread seep in while you anticipate the absolute worst. As I said before, about half the movie is Sam waiting in a huge, mostly darkened house out in the country. There’s a couple of signs that something is wrong, but only we are privy to them. Director Ti West wisely respects his audience enough to limit the scares mostly to the creepiness of the house. Common horror film standbys like the cat jumping out of the shadows and the harmless person standing silently behind you are nowhere to be found, and it’s a better movie for it. So many horror movies these days forget what an asset atmosphere can be for a film, instead relying on jump scares and gore to get the job done.
West’s direction also deserves some mention. He’s unobtrusive here, using longer shots which linger on Sam. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he doesn’t use lots of editing to cover for the fact that there’s not a whole lot happening on screen. In particular, I love the scene where Sam and Megan arrive at the house and we first meet Mr. Ulman. As the door opens, the camera stays level with the girls, even though they’re about a foot-and-a-half shorter than him. It’s a wonderfully unsettling way to introduce such a creepy character, refusing to show us his face. This movie is a perfect antidote for anyone who’s tired of the constant flood of studio horror movies and their MTV-inspired flashiness.
This is a masterfully crafted bit of nostalgia, but you can certainly appreciate its greatness without having a love of 80’s horror movies. if you haven’t seen it yet, you absolutely must. Don’t be discouraged by the lulls in the movie; the payoff is well worth the wait.
–This review is part of the Final Girl Film Club. Welcome!