As mainstream modern horror continues its downward spiral into an abyss of torture porn, derivative haunted house stories, and mediocre remakes, a few filmmakers have been mining the past for inspiration – most notably the late seventies and early eighties. While some of these “throwbacks” have successfully incorporated the basic formula of the time, it’s mostly been achieved by applying period-style conventions to modern situations, characters and themes. Not content to simply borrow from the era, director Ti West meticulously recreates the early eighties with his satanic shocker, The House of the Devil, a stunningly authentic film that truly captures the spirit and style of what is, in my opinion, the creative zenith of horror cinema.
Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) has found the apartment of her dreams. It’s clean, affordable, and, most importantly, far away from her sex-crazed slob of a roommate back in her cramped little dorm room. The only problem is Sam is flat broke, and only has a few days to come up with her first month’s rent. While walking back to campus, she spies a flyer advertising a babysitting gig, and calls to inquire about the job, but there’s no one at home, it seems, so she leaves a message on the answering machine. Just as she hangs up the payphone, it rings, and Sam picks up. The man on the other end of the line asks if she was the person who’d just called about the babysitting job. He introduces himself as Mr. Ullman (Tom Noonan), and asks Sam if they can meet at the administration building that morning. Sam agrees, but, when Ullman doesn’t show up, she’s furious, and finds herself even more anxious about money than before.
After a quick lunch with her best friend, Megan (Greta Gerwig), Sam returns to her dorm where her roommate tells her that Ullman called for her while she was out, and Sam reluctantly calls him back. Ullman apologizes profusely to Sam for missing her that morning, and hopes she’ll give him a second chance. He desperately needs her to come over immediately as he and his wife have important plans revolving around that evening’s rare lunar eclipse. Sam suggests that it’s a bit short notice, but Ullman offers to double the fee, offering her a hundred dollars for just a few hours work. The financially strapped Sam has no choice but to accept the offer and recruits Megan to drive her out to Ullman’s isolated house, where the creepy and soft-spoken man reveals that he wasn’t entirely forthcoming about the job. Sam would be babysitting, alright, but not for a child but rather Ullman’s elderly mother-in-law, who, he assures her, is more than capable of caring for herself, and that Sam’s presence would only serve to ease Mrs. Ullman’s (Mary Woronov) mind. Sam wants no part of it, but, when Ullman offers her four hundred dollars to stay, Sam accepts despite Megan’s protests. Now, with Megan and the Ullman’s gone, Sam hunkers down for a long, lonely, and terrifying night in the house of the devil.
From its opening credits sequence to its period-accurate soundtrack (including the likes of Thomas Dolby, The Fixx, and Greg Kihn) and synth-heavy score, House of the Devil is such dead-on recreation of eighties horror that, at times, I truly forgot I was watching a film made in 2008. What really makes West’s film so admirable is that he does all this without resorting to knowing winks, kitsch, or parody; this is an homage that is as straight-faced and serious as they come (something a few of my peers found to the film’s detriment, but I wholly disagree). I also appreciated the fact that West didn’t take the easy route and churn out a formulaic period slasher, and, instead, opted to craft a straight up thriller revolving around a satanic cult (a theme that was quite popular in the early part of the decade). The House of the Devil eschews traditional shock tactics in favor of tense, totally unnerving atmosphere. There’s a constant sense of dread here; one that builds to an almost unbearable level by the time the film reaches its admittedly predictable (but no less enjoyable) climax. I found myself watching much of the movie with my eyes half-shielded by my hands, both giddy and terrified, completely immersed in West and cinematographer, Eliot Rockett’s, dark and shadowy world. It’s a visual aesthetic reminiscent of classic Carpenter and Fulci, in which the bulk of the terror is generated by one’s own anticipation and imagination rather than anything that’s actually happening on the screen. It’s a narrative approach sorely missing from today’s more visceral and literal breed of horror film, and a reminder as to how effective simple suggestion and old fashioned sleight of hand can be.
West puts together a cast of fresh faces and genre stalwarts, with newcomer, Donahue, turning in a wonderfully understated performance as Samantha, while the veterans Woronov and Noonan are delightfully eccentric and surprisingly charming as the Ullmans. West’s sharp script avoids the pitfalls of self-awareness, with dialogue that’s genuine and free of eighties clichés (ie; no one says “bodacious” or “totally” or “radical”…), and a storyline that, while derivative, still somehow manages to feel fresh and compelling.
While The House of the Devil is admittedly a gimmick flick, it’s a goddamned great one, and Ti West deserves major kudos, not only for managing to craft such an impressively accurate recreation of 1980’s horror cinema, but for reminding us just how good horror movies used to (and can still) be. Easily one of the year’s best releases. I, for one, can’t wait to see where this talented young filmmaker goes from here.