First published by EyeforFilm
On stage at the Film4 FrightFest 2009 to introduce his latest feature, writer/director Ti West declared: “It’s a very different film from The Roost.” Yet what The House Of The Devil has very much in common with his batty 2005 debut, apart from the ever-welcome presence of independent cinema’s tallest character actor Tom Noonan, is that both films, despite having not an ounce of originality between them and even flaunting their nostalgic derivativeness, are so extraordinarily well-crafted that little else seems to matter. As a genre filmmaker through and through, West is unlikely to be winning an Oscar any time soon – but when it comes to the extraordinary manipulation of tension and atmosphere, he is an unsung master of cinema, elevating even the most unpromising of materials to their most refined quintessence.
The yellow titles over freeze frames, the sweaters, the walkmans, the cars, the rotary phones, the synth score – these do not come across as cheap period pastiche, but as the genuine article, lovingly fashioned down to the minutest detail with all the look, texture and grain of a straight-to-VHS chiller. The House Of The Devil is not just set in the 1980s, but steeped in it – even resurrecting such Eighties icons as Mary Woronov (Eating Raoul, Blood Theatre, Chopping Mall) and Dee Wallace (The Howling, E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial, Cujo) to populate its old school milieu. When Wallace’s landlady is heard in the opening sequence telling young heroine Samantha (Jocelin Donahue): “You remind me of my daughter”, she might just as well be describing the lineage of the film itself.
Desperate for money to rent her own place, student Samantha answers an ad for a babysitting job, and ends up, on the night of a total lunar eclipse, at a secluded house by a cemetery. The strange, slightly nervous Mr Ulman (Noonan) explains that it is not a baby, but his infirm mother-in-law, who will be sleeping upstairs while he and his wife (Woronov) go out. What is more, he agrees to pay Samantha $400 for her pains. “It’s too good to be true,” as Samantha tells her best friend Megan (Greta Gerwig).
Then, left virtually alone in the house with an advance on her pay and a number for the nearest pizza delivery service, Samantha begins to grow uneasy. Megan, who is meant to be picking her up later, is not answering the phone, there is a peculiar van parked across the road, and things are beginning to go bump in the night – but is it just a young woman’s overactive imagination, or is the devil of the title truly at work?
Exploiting the now passé paranoia of a decade when over 70 per cent of Americans genuinely believed in the existence of Satanic cults, The House Of The Devil may present a series of entirely outmoded anxieties, but it nonetheless defies the modern viewer to remain unperturbed by its exquisitely handled escalation of tension.
Just the right note of foreboding is introduced at the outset by an ‘objective’ title informing viewers that “what follows is based on unexplained true events”, and from then on West sticks – with only a small number of jarringly significant exceptions – to the subjective perspective of his protagonist, allowing the horror to build slowly but surely. Much of the film’s central action revolves around simple, yet diabolically effective, scenes of Samantha’s growing unease in the titular house – but West also knows just when to pull out the stops, and has perfected a story that does not merely rip off Rosemary’s Baby (1968), but matches Polanski’s command of suspense. So while its furnishings may be old and not a little worn, in this house, genre fans will feel right at home.