The House of the Devil
The House of the Devil (2009, Written and Directed by Ti West)
Last week’s installment of “Instant Gratification” looked at another of Ti West’s offerings, The Innkeepers, and I briefly alluded to West’s impressive abilities to construct a thoroughly terrifying sense of dread and atmosphere. I definitely think you should check out The Innkeepers, but The House of the Devil is the work that West will probably be remembered for, many years from now, and it will most likely be the film that West will always be trying to top. I’m honestly not sure how that will be possible—I’m sure there’s nothing more painful than peaking early and producing that one exceptional film that all of your subsequent work will pale before. I sincerely hope I’m wrong here, you have to understand that, because if West can top the tension-mounting moody thrill ride of The House of the Devil, then we are all in for quite a treat.
On paper, The House of the Devil isn’t all that intriguing, or even that novel. Fed up with her over-sexed college roommate, Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) finds a quaint apartment, but has to make the pricey rent and deposit quickly. She takes a job babysitting for the Ulman family (Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov), and her friend Megan (Greta Gerwig) drops her off at the secluded mansion. But upon arrival, Samantha finds out that the job doesn’t exactly fit the initial description, and despite Megan’s warnings and her own concerns (not to mention the looming lunar eclipse), she decides to take the job after the Ulmans drive up the price considerably. It seems like a cinchy job, but as the evening stretches on, the house begins to reveal some very creepy things.
Even though this doesn’t sound like anything new, what West does with this bare-bones plot not only ratchets up the tension until you are on the edge of your seat, but he approaches it in a way that takes away a lot of the problems that typically plague contemporary horror films. The most resourceful thing that he does is set it in the 1980s—there are no cell phones, no internet, none of the things that would have to be explained away in order to make the type of seclusion that this story leans on so heavily for its chill-inducing atmosphere. But West doesn’t just set the film in the 80s, he actually, I would contend, makes a 1980s horror film. From the clothing, the cars, the music, even the titles and the graininess of the film and the lighting, not to mention the ending, this flick looks like it was a long-lost film from say, 1982, only resurfacing now to haunt a new generation of viewers. It is a seriously impressive homage to the types of films that I personally grew up glimpsing from between the crooks of my fingers, too scared to look at directly, and the jump-scare atmospherics of the creaky old mansion are relics of a time long past. I can’t think of another recent film that is able to produce so much seemingly unfounded terror, and maintain it over the duration, not to mention one that is so cunningly produced, and with such a knock-out punch of an ending. I’m being deliberately cagey here, because to say much about the plot will ruin what all of that tension mounts up to. And by the way, if you want to go into this cold, I beg of you, do not look at the IMDB entry, which goes ahead and spoils the whole film with one stupid, thoughtless sentence. Way to be, internet.
But even the time period and setting aside, West has a real mastery of horror storytelling, and this is what really makes the atmosphere bloom in the hair-raising-ist of fashions. He has a knack for putting the viewer just slightly ahead of Samantha, revealing things to us that she hasn’t quite caught on to—and because we genuinely fear for her safety, our own anxiety gets harnessed to the narrative. Donahue imbues Samantha with a realness, a girl-next-door quality that registers in a very authentic way, that helps us connect to her desires to move out, to her decision to push her gut-level instincts aside for just one night to make the money that she needs for rent, and the kind of scrappiness that makes us really invested in her attempts to break free from what she eventually finds in the dark recesses of the secluded mansion.
West manages a real balance of a nostalgia for a certain type of film history and a fresh and invigorating plot momentum that makes The House of the Devil both a gorgeous throwback and an instant contemporary classic. But you know, maybe don’t watch it at night in house out in the country where your cell reception isn’t very strong and the wooden floors creak. You can’t say I didn’t warn you.
Next Installment: Repulsion