Director: Ti West
Stars: Jocelin Donahue (Samantha), Greta Gerwig (Megan), Tom Noonan (Mr Ulman), Mary Woronov (Mrs Ulman), AJ Bowen (Victor Ulman), Dee Wallace (Landlady)
In theory The House Of The Devil shouldn’t work. In theory, this is the kind of walk down misery lane that plagues modern horror, keying into past glories instead of exploring new avenues. Ti West’s slow-burn homage to the genre classics of the late 70’s and early 80’s could be argued, simply, as an act of plagiarism, drawing elements from countless other horror movies, callously assembled as just another Friday night scare-fest, and a mind-numbingly slow one at that. I recently reviewed hit horror movie The Conjuring and slammed it for being derivative. What makes The House Of The Devil any better? Isn’t it just the same tired cycle of done-to-death routines? In an over-crowded genre, isn’t this just one-too-many?
Not for me. The House Of The Devil manages to rise above much of the dross of recent times. It stands tall beside its classic counterparts. It’s one of the best horror movies of the last decade. Largely this is because, from the first frame, it has what so many also-rans yearn for but fail to conjure at all.
After an audience-baiting title card proclaiming, naturally, that what follows is based on a ‘true unexplained story’ (rubbish as usual), Ti West’s film opens with a slow creep-in on Jocelin Donahue as struggling student Samantha. It’s the kind of invasive, creepy push-in that marks the exemplary photography throughout this film, and reveals its creators as fully in command of the material. This is a film born out of reverence for a type of horror filmmaking that has largely fallen by the wayside; one in which you don’t want or need a scare every minute, where the brood of waiting and wondering is more than half of the fun. West artfully begins building dread right here in what is otherwise the most innocuous of scenes.
Samantha is looking at an apartment. The landlady (played by Dee Wallace – the first of a handful of small casting coups) likes her. Now all she has to do is put together the deposit. Easier said than done. Retro titles and Samantha’s kitsch Sony Walkman place us firmly in the era of West’s influences, as does the slight grain of the film stock – a more deftly judged nod to films of old than Tarantino & Rodriguez’s Grindhouse (of which I am also a big fan).
Once we’re into the main body of the film things settle to a measured pace as Samantha takes a job babysitting from a flier outside her dorm room. The empty campus, the winter clothes and overcast skies; it all adds to the subtle unrest built by the repeated slow zooms orchestrated by director of photography Eliot Rockett. Though nothing sinister is yet happening per se, an atmosphere of unease is maintained through these shots. We keep finding ourselves slightly too close to Samantha for comfort. She feels trapped in the frame. West also keys into our knowledge of past films. Over and over a set-up will recall John Carpenter’s Halloween or Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining – and yet here it feels appropriate and not simply derivative. If you’re going to steal, steal from the best. Because he makes the right choices, we make the kind of subconscious connections that only add to the unease.
There’s an inherent loneliness and quiet about Samantha. For much of the long opening stretch we see her alone or as an outsider. The House Of The Devil threatens to devolve into navel gazing. Aware of this, West counters with another great piece of casting. Greta Gerwig does much with little as Samantha’s friend Megan. If she openly recalls Jamie Lee Curtis’ more extroverted foil played by Nancy Loomis in Halloween then that only makes us fear for her more. A fear that turns out to be completely justified.
Which brings us to that titular house. A large part of the film – too large for some – sees Samantha out in the sticks ‘babysitting’ for an unseen senior citizen at the behest of the Ulman family. Mr Ulman is brought to life by the looming Tom Noonan, if ‘brought to life’ is the appropriate phrase for such a precise and seemingly measured figure. Noonan has always had a disarmingly thoughtful but menacing presence (he was astounding in Manhunter) and he makes Mr Ulman painstakingly polite and erudite. Once the house is as-good-as-deserted, and once Megan’s drive home is shockingly curtailed, we’re left watching Samantha kill time.
It’s a brave move on West’s part as he boldly attempts to make a movie out of one person slowly realising that she’s been caught in a trap through boredom and curiosity. This is where The House Of The Devil becomes a ‘marmite’ experience. People either dig this or they don’t. Personally, I love it. The exact framing, the superb lighting, the choice of shots, the patience of this middle stretch. Underpinned by some eerie, slight piano on the score, West’s movie works, in part, because the audience knows only marginally more than Samantha does. We know she’s in more trouble than she thinks she is. That itself is key to the success. And, like Audition, we also know we’re watching a horror movie. Dread, expectation, anticipation, suspense. West uses these like a pro.
But still, there are set pieces, just of a different kind. Samantha kills time dancing around the house to The Fixx’s “One Thing Leads To Another” – a perfect choice. It puts the viewer on edge because of just how cavalier it is, especially when it is brutally cut short when she breaks a vase, something more effective than a dozen false boos in a lesser movie. That’s when you know the film has got you; your heart sinks with Samantha’s.
And I’ve given plenty of credit to the supporting players here, so let’s just say this about Donahue. She owns this film. For 90% of the time we’re left with just her and she holds court superbly. We can empathise with her plight, and her discussion with Megan about just why she’s putting herself in harm’s way sells her decision. She may be there against good sense, but she knows it, she’s weighed it up, she’s taking the risk.
So where does all of this go? Following the mother of all jump scares, when The House Of The Devil tips its hand it positively goes loopy. I’m talkin’ batshit crazy. You can argue that after such an immersive and extensive build-up, it can’t possibly deliver, and that’s true to a degree. The reveal revels in Satanic horror’s most reliable tropes. But this is also fitting, and plays out with great physical intensity. We’ve earned a little hysteria for our patience. Does it go too far? I wouldn’t say so, except arguably for one thing…
If anything feels off at all its the implausible coda… and yet even this manages to get a pass. It feels traditional in a bizarre way; a nod to so many horrors where there must always be a final ‘aha!’ moment.
Ultimately however the good far outweighs the bad. Yes, its assembled from the pieces of other pictures, but the end product is razor-sharp, completely sincere, fully committed. For all the tail-end lunacy (which we were asking for anyway) this feels like a mature horror picture, one which credits it’s audience with enough regard for the genre to respect the journey, not just the destination.
For some this will all read like madness. That’s fair enough. I get why many people hate on this movie. I’m not saying my view is better than those who don’t like it or that I ‘got’ something they missed. Like everything on this site it’s about personal taste. For my part I feel that Ti West has suffered diminishing returns since The House Of The Devil. The Innkeepers was good, but his forays into short film for V/H/S and The ABCs of Death have been woefully misjudged affairs, yet I still feel he is a director to watch. I’m looking forward to his next picture. Such is the legacy of this movie. On this evidence, to me, we may have a new master on our hands.