Director: Ti West
Stars: Jocelin Donahue, Tom Noonan, A.J. Bowen, Mary Woronov, Greta Gerwig, Dee Wallace
Release date: October 30, 2009
During the 1980s over 70% of American adults believed in the existence of abusive Satanic Cults…
Another 30% rationalized the lack of evidence due to government cover ups…
The following is based on true unexplained events…
So begins The House of the Devil, one of the past decade’s most tragically underseen features (in any genre), which plays up the real-life panic surrounding satanic ritual abuse that gripped American communities big and small in the 1980s.
Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) is a cash-strapped college student (is there any other kind?) who has less than a week to cobble together enough cash to move out of her sex-infested dorm room and into her dream apartment (an apartment owned by Dee Wallace, who makes a quick appearance in a fun nod to the decade in which the film is set). So against her better judgment—and the loud protests of her best friend Megan (Greta Gerwig)—Sam agrees to accept a one-night babysitting gig on the outskirts of town for a couple she has never met, who are intent on getting a clear view of the lunar eclipse that will be visible that very evening. She quickly learns that the job is not exactly as advertised.
Upon her arrival at this house in the middle of nowhere, Sam and Megan are greeted by the family patriarch, Mr. Ulman (Tom Noonan, whose mere presence in a movie ups its creepy factor by at least 40 percent). He admits to Sam that there is no child to watch, just an old lady—the mother of his wife (Mary Woronov, another staple actress of ‘80s horror movies). When Sam balks, Mr. Ulman raises the stakes, offering to pay her $400 for four hours of her time and promising that grandma is quite independent and won’t need any help. Money talks; Sam stays. And for the first three-quarters of the movie, nothing really happens.
Sam orders up a pizza, throws on her Walkman, dances around the house in her high-waisted stonewashed jeans to The Fixx and does some snooping (essentially, what every babysitter in the 1980s did). But then her pizza arrives and things start to get weird. Then everything starts to get a little foggy… and then Sam awakens to find herself tied to the ground in the attic—with the entire Ulman clan surrounding her, preparing to offer her up as part of a ritual sacrifice.
Writer-director Ti West takes a page from Hitchcock’s book of How to Create Suspense by keeping the film purposefully meandering before shifting into creepy overdrive. It hearkens back to the golden age of horror films, when movies like Psycho and Rosemary’s Baby reveled as much in the anticipation of what might happen as what actually does happen At the same time, it serves as a more subtle sibling to international splatterfests like Suspiria (minus all of Dario Argento's beloved Technicolor blood).
Referencing the past is a particularly appropriate activity in discussing The House of the Devil, as its authenticity to the period it’s attempting to re-create is one of its greatest charms. West’s attention to detail went way beyond licensing a couple of decade-appropriate songs and determining what the kids were wearing. The tint to the color of the film itself, which was shot in 16mm; the fonts used in the opening credits and the gratuitous use of freeze frame; and every inch of production design (Sam's new apartment, the Ulman's house, etc.) are perfectly wrought. This is a guy who knows his shit. And knows that subtlety trumps cheesiness every time. —Jennifer Wood