If a film is entitled "The House of the Devil", you should know pretty much from the off what to expect: at some point, a girl in a scanty white gown is going to end up spread-eagled on a chalk pentagram, surrounded by candles in front of a Satanic alter, while cowled devil worshippers encircle her. We want this and we expect to get it. The only thing to be determined is just how we are to arrive at this enticing scenario.
Director (and writer and editor - usually a bad sign, but not in this case!) Ti West is as aware of this as anybody could be, thankfully, and so this marvelous little low-budget shocker - finally released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK by Metrodome - does something all too rare in the current climate of quick-fix, multiplex-pleasing, blood-soaked sadism, and takes the slow-burn approach, setting up an all too over-familiar Horror film situation, but then slowly milking it for every last drop of terror and suspense it could possibly render, giving you just enough bloody grue to let you know, more-or-less, that something really nasty is going to happen eventually ... but twisting your nerves into knots as it slowly turns the screw making you wait for it - wondering what form exactly the inevitable denouement is going to take. Trust me: this old school softly, softly approach results in one of the most purely pleasurable Horror movie-watching experiences you'll have this year.
The film is set sometime in the early- to mid-eighties, and watching it becomes a nostalgia blast from the very first few seconds; for it seems West has a Tarantino-like love of film detail and clearly likes to jive on recreating many of those telling little quirks that so often used to proliferate in classic (and not so classic) late-seventies and early-eighties movies, not out of some arch, ironic, clever-clever post-modern posturing either, but simply out of a genuine love and appreciation for the films of that era. Thus we are presented with an opening sequence that so perfectly captures the mood and style of the period that, in no time at all, you almost forget that this is a contemporary film. From the bright yellow font of the opening credits to the stylised freeze frame behind the title card, not to mention that cheesy, utterly addictive sound-alike eighties synth-rock theme music (I can't believe this isn't a true '80s track!), you're immediately inveigled into that curious TV movie of the week vibe the film gives off (there are fades to black that last an agonising eternity and the end credits even fade out as they scroll off the screen like a bad cable TV daytime soap!), with memories of classics like "Black Christmas" and countless '80s slasher movies also pushed well to the forefront of your mind.
The film has even been shot on 16mm Fuji film and then blown up to 35 mm to get that authentic '80s feel.
It would have been so easy to play all this for camp effect, but West resists and even the 'Fulci' zoom shots look pretty impressive. Although throughout the film we are assailed with notable period details like rotary phones, classic Coke cartons and the heroine's clunky, brick-like Sony walkman with its distinctive orange headphones, none of it ever looks strained or is played for comedy effect. Even when Jocelin Donahue at one point essays some fine "Risky Business" influenced '80s bopping, we are with her all the way, not sniggering at her!
For the first half-hour, this 'retro cool' effect is more than enough to keep the viewer entertained as we watch the film's protagonist, penniless college student Samantha Hughes (Donahue), get herself embroiled in a dodgy situation that can only go from bad to worse for all concerned ... The plot is really so utterly simple it almost defies belief that anyone would even consider trying to get away with it in this day and age. What we have here, basically, is your traditional babysitter-in-peril/alone-in a-creepy-house scenario. Hughes accepts an offer that is surely too good to be true after contacting - via the college message board - creepy-sounding Mr Ullman ("Manhunter"'s Tom Noonan) with regard to a babysitting job he's offering. She's found the house of her dreams, but needs cash urgently if she is to be able to afford the move and escape the nightly rutting of her sex-crazed dorm mate.
She and her best pal Megan (a likable turn from Greta Gerwig) travel down a seemingly endless tree-lined nocturnal highway, into the outer wilds of Connecticut on the night of a full lunar eclipse, and end up at Mr Ullman's secluded residence, which turns out to be an old, three storey house carved with weird over-elaborate architectural ornamentation. After trying to convince Samantha that staying here overnight would be a very bad idea, especially since Mr Ullman eventually admits that he doesn't even have a child! - Megan reluctantly leaves without her friend: after managing to talk up the price to four-hundred bucks, Samantha is just too reluctant to let go of this golden money-making opportunity. Ullman's even creepier wife (genre stalwart Mary Woronov) appears from the basement, ominously telling her jittery, cane-wielding husband that 'the girl is perfect,' and the couple exit for the night, leaving Samantha in charge of their unseen enfeebled mother, who apparently resides somewhere in the upper storey of the house.
From here on in the film becomes an exercise in sustained tension building as West and his production team go all out to keep the viewer on edge, deftly building towards some kind of seemingly imminent revelation, only to pull back and start the build-up all over again. I hadn't realised until this flick, just how long it's been since I've seen a good old fashioned, slow-building old school horror film of this kind, but West also has the advantage that he can still pull out all the gory shocks when he needs them - but without having to rely on the blood and gore effects all the way through. Thus, when the unpleasantness does appear, it packs far more of a visceral punch than countless unthinkingly gore-splattered torture porn flicks. West makes the film visually compelling enough, but he also benefits from a fantastically atmospheric score from Jeff Grace, full of taut scrapings and nervous droning's - and a rousing, shrieking climax that, whether intentional or not, certainly does bare more than a little resemblance to some of the more hysterical moments from Goblin's "Suspiria" score.The sound design plays a crucial role in building atmosphere and in pricking the imagination of the viewer as to just what may be lurking behind the door upstairs or around the next darkened corner; there are ominous bumps and knocks, strange noises coming from the sink and the phone has a nerve-shredding tendency to resound loudly through the house just at the quitest moment.
None of this would count for toffee though if it weren't for a set of terrific performances from the small ensemble cast: Noonan and Wononov are as offbeat and edgy as you'd hope and expect them to be, of course; but Greta Gerwig makes more of her thankless 'best friend' role than you would ever find in a real slasher from this era, and perfectly cast newcomer Jocelin Donahue is a revelation in the title role as the unfortunate loner college student turned would-be babysitter. The elfin featured Donahue is sympathetic at all times playing the film's chief protagonist, and is obliged to carry the movie through some daringly large chunks of screen-time entirely by herself; yet she makes the unabashedly genre-conforming behaviour of her character seem truthful and justifiable throughout. There is a startlingly long sequence almost exactly half-way through the movie where she is required simply to look around the house. Nothing much happens at all, but it's a real acting tour de force and without a performance of this caliber a film of this nature would be sunk before it started.
"The House of the Devil" never had any real theatre presence in the UK as far as I'm aware, so its arrival on DVD and Blu-ray has been little heralded, but this is really an unexpected treasure, and a real find for those who're lucky enough to stumble across it. The DVD version features two commentary tracks, both led by director, writer and editor Ti West. In the first, he is joined by star Jocelin Donahue for a low key, anecdotal conversation encompassing remembrances of the odd behaviour on set of genre mainstay and devout spiritualist, Dee Wallace and Donahue's dissatisfaction with the '80s high-waistband jeans she is required to wear throughout! The work that was done in production design to transform the house, and the need to get things looking authentically 80s without slipping into kitsch is discussed at length.
The second commentary track is a more irreverent affair that sees the director joined by producers Larry Fessenden and Peter Phok and sound designer Graham Reznick. Inevitably, a lot of information is repeated - anecdotes about tracking down the vintage candy bars Samantha likes to munch on whenever she gets frustrated, and lots of talk about the alterations made to the house in which most of the film was shot, etc. - but this is still an entertaining listen with West citing "The Changeling" as a major influence, and relating how he had to change one of the songs on the soundtrack after it was also used in "Let the Right One In" (also an '80s period horror film!). The disc includes a thirteen minute montage of behind-the-scenes footage called "In the House of the Devil", plus six minutes of deleted scenes encompassing a phone conversation between Samantha and Megan that was cut for being too funny and not fitting the tone of the movie, and a creepy sequence from near the end of the film which was cut for being judged to be 'a cheat' because it revealed information that was not given from Samantha's POV.
A theatrical trailer is also included, but sells the movie somewhat short and gives too much information away concerning the climax of the movie.