Film Review – House of the Devil

In the early 80’s a college sophomore, Samantha (Jocelin Donahue), needs to make some quick cash. She decides to take a babysitting job that coincides with a full lunar eclipse. But the family that hires her harbors a dark secret.

That’s really about all there is to the setup of “House of the Devil” (2009). The director Ti West takes this simple story and attempts to wring the maximum amount of suspense and terror from everything that follows. Upon it’s release it divided critics and fans into two groups: the “scariest film in years/ Ti West is the future of horror” group and the “most boring film released in years” group. As you can see, two radically different sides of the fence. To be fair, the number of people who supported the film was greater than those who found themselves bored to tears. Sitting down to watch “House of the Devil” I was just as intrigued by the critical baggage as I was about the promise of seeing some great new horror.

What strikes you immediately upon watching the film is the time period. Every aspect of the look and design is tailored to bring you fully into that era.  The clothes, the hair, the furniture; it’s all replicated perfectly. Even the film itself is given a grain that reminds you of a VHS you might find in a bargain bin somewhere.  It serves to draw you in immediately and a state of dreadful anticipation quickly follows and is sustained by a great score and sound design.

I’m not going to argue with the camp who have labeled this film dull and complained of it’s glacial pace. It would be disingenuous to say this film isn’t slow. It is. It focuses on Samantha and the mundane activities of this one day in her life and Ti West takes his time to show us everything. But he doesn’t use this approach without reason. It makes the horror of the film that much more affecting. Personally, I’ve never seen a horror film that benefited from machine gun editing and rapid pacing and the willingness of the director here to take his time with long takes and banal moments serves the story well.  “House of the Devil” easily elevates itself above the current crop of epilepsy inducing mass consumables that call themselves horror films.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a perfect movie. In some ways Ti West’s pastiche of late 70’s/ early 80’s horror is a little too self-reflexive and self-knowing. It can never entirely be one of the films it sets out so lovingly to emulate because there are moments where it’s obvious he’s trying too hard to be one of those films. Luckily, these moments of naked aspiration are few and far between but they do serve to pull you out a little, even just to reminisce about the films that laid the groundwork. In a way, it’s not entirely a bad thing. Watching “House of the Devil” is like having a long conversation with a good friend about the era that brought us “A Nightmare On Elm Street”, “Friday the 13th” and other such stalwarts of horror fandom. It’s actually interesting to watch how Ti West utilizes techniques that are by now well worn and spins them into such an effective narrative. It doesn’t speak as much to his abilities as a director (though he is quite good) as much as it shows that these techniques still work.

The ending does pose a bit of a problem though. For all those who complained of having to watch Samantha order pizza or watch television, the end sequence the film inexorably builds toward isn’t quite as effective as the suspense of those moments that came before it. This can be a common problem with the horror genre in general, that the imaginations of the audience and our attempts to impose an answer on a mystery are far more terrifying and effective than the real answers when they’re finally shown to us. There are slight technical problems that serve to pull us out of the story as well, such as questions of spatial relations and time elasticity that the direction glosses over. But the final few moments, though a touch predictable, are still great and unsettling.

So the question remains, is Ti West the future of horror? It’s a funny question, considering that the film is a throwback to classics that are over 25 years behind us. But I will say this, he’s perfectly captured the elements that are so integral to great horror as a genre and which so many young filmmakers today have lost. Suspense. Dread. The ability to relate to the characters. Modern horror, for the most part, has lost it’s way. It’s not really supposed to be about what actually happens. It’s about what might happen. What might be in the basement. What might be under your bed. It’s about who might live right next door to you. The facts are never quite as terrifying as the possibilities. I don’t really know if Ti West is the future of horror but I can’t wait to see what he does next.