Film Reviews

31 Days of Halloween: House of the Devil

This October, we’re challenging ourselves to watch at least one horror movie a day. Today we’re tackling two different movies by director Ti West. First up, his instant-classic from 2009:

When I was a kid, my dad loved horror movies. His philosophy seemed to be if I was old enough to have crawled into a room where one was playing, I was old enough to view it. As a result, I probably saw far more slasher and horror fare than was appropriate for a young, developing mind. Despite a resulting well-developed, dark sense of humor, I think I emerged from my advanced cinematic education mostly (60%? 75 %?) unscathed.

As I got into my teenage years, I spent countless hours perusing the nearby Blockbuster Video’s horror section, working my way through every Halloween, Friday the 13th, and Nightmare on Elm Street film I could find, as well as schlockier fare like Happy Birthday to Me, Sleepaway Camp, and The Burning. I may not have been able to sleep much at night, but I think that’s a small price to pay for the horror trash and treasures I acquired. Even the most poorly conceived, dreadfully acted of 80s horror can still bring a smile to my face.

I share this little glimpse into my adolescent years to illustrate I was probably the perfect audience for Ti West’s 80s-throwback, House of the Devil. The film takes place over a roughly 24-hour period and centers on Samantha (Jocelyn Donahue), a college student who desperately needs apartment rent (for an apartment provided by Dee Wallace Stone, no less). She takes a babysitting gig, only to realize far too late that the job entails a lot more than was in the ad. Add in a once-in-a-lifetime eclipse, some bogus facts about American culture’s belief in Satanic worship, the claim that the film is “based upon” actual events, and House of the Devil sounds like one of those gloriously gnarly trash pieces from the slasher era’s peak.

Here’s the difference, though: Ti West is a skilled filmmaker, and he casts capable actors to make the proceedings far more involving and confidently realized than the gloriously trashy films he seems to love. He recognizes the steps an 80s horror film must take but he brings his own unique sensibilities to the proceedings. He clearly loves both the genre and the era in which the majority of said films are set (note the film’s use of a Walkman, big hair, and decade-appropriate denim), but he also knows enough to twist and play with the conventions in order to create something wholly unique.

While most 80s slasher films start with mayhem and add in more mayhem in ever-increasing doses, House of the Devil epitomizes slow-burn horror. From the film’s opening, involving a slow pan across an empty apartment with our heroine looking around admiringly, to the streetlight-free drive to her babysitting destination, West uses his camera to create a sense of unease and tension long before anything truly horrifying has really happened. The film’s first act of violence comes with no warning whatsoever, and from that point forward, the viewer is on edge, waiting for the other shoe to drop. By the time the camera slowly follows our heroine around the house as she puts on her headphones and dances to The Fixx’s “One Thing Leads to Another,” the sense of anxiety has been stretched almost to its breaking point.

Part of the fun is how prominently the film displays its red flags. Even the “Baby $itter needed” ad feels like something best left for another unsuspecting coed. Add in the long, dark drive up to the most imposing of homes, the revelation that it’s not a babysitting gig but in fact caring for an elderly woman, and that she’s recruited by the inherently terrifying Tom Noonan, and we’d all take best friend Meghan’s (Greta Gerwig) advice and head for the hills. However, Samantha really needs that money, so she uses those red flags to squeeze extra cash from Tom Noonan’s long-fingers.

With that Faustian deal struck, Samantha settles in and viewers wait in dread for the true nature of Samantha’s gig to kick in.

And kick in it does, because tension only gets you so far. Eventually, West cuts loose and we see how truly nefarious Samantha’s fate actually is, complete with copious amounts of bloodletting, an interesting twist on the era’s “final girl” trope, and an ending that creates a wonderfully sinking feeling in the pit of the viewer’s stomach. It’s to West’s credit that he keeps his film humming along by alternating slow-burn tension and brief moments of violence before he reveals his climax in all its horrific splendor.

House of the Devil is one of those little gems that’s just fun to revisit, especially if you wanted an 80s-tinged horror film that’s actually well-made and acted.

Later Today: The Sacrament

Here’s What Else We’ve Watched So Far:


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