Review: “The House of the Devil”

housedevilsambloodyWorst. Babysitting. Job. Ever. (Jocelin Donahue in The House of the Devil)

Ooooooooh! This one’s good!

I love when a young filmmaker dips into the vast sea of existing horror movies for inspiration and winds up creating a well-crafted and original film that pays suitable tribute to the great genre movements of the past. It’s more than just a matter of mimicking camera moves and copying costume styles: Capturing the mood and spirit of a bygone genre is tough stuff, and when it’s done right it can be both a blast of tingly nostalgia and a credit to the smarts of the guy (or gal) behind the camera.

Such a flick is Ti West‘s The House of the Devil, a new movie that feels like it would be right at home among the creaky and offbeat made-for-TV supernatural thrillers of the 70′s and 80′s.

housedevilposter2

And yes, I do mean that as a compliment.

The year is sometime in the early 80′s, and young student Sam (excellent newcomer Jocelin Donahue) is struggling to make ends meet in a cold college town. Her dorm roommate is a horny mess, which prompts Sam to rent her first one-bedroom apartment on her own (from Dee Wallace, no less!). Trouble is, she doesn’t have the money for the deposit.

Fortunately for Sam, fiscal salvation comes in the form of a babysitting flier near the Student Activities office. Unfortunately for Sam, the salvation she’ll need after taking the job goes waaaay beyond “fiscal”.

housedevilgretaGreta puts the “wig” in Gerwig

After some unsettling back-and-forth on the phone with the man who posted the flier, Sam gets her only friend Megan (Greta Gerwig, from the sorely underseen Baghead) to drive her to the house, which is of course in the middle of nowhere. Sam and Greta meet the mysterious Mr. Ullman (veteran NY stage actor Tom Noonan from What Happened Was…) and despite the situation being beyond creepy, Sam decides to stay – much to Megan’s dismay.

See, this isn’t your standard babysitting gig. Cause there’s no baby.

Mr. Ullman tells Sam that she’s actually there to keep an eye on his aged mother (who is somewhere upstairs) while he and his wife (Mary Woronov, refreshingly restrained) attend a party for the lunar eclipse. He says he’ll pay her $400 cash to order pizza and watch TV … and since she needs the cash, she stays, and Megan leaves in a huff.

housedevilworonovMary Woronov: Still Got It!

What unfolds from this point on is deliciously eerie babysitter-in-a-creepy-old-house stuff, complete with mysterious strangers, spooky dark hallways, and the ongoing question of just who is hanging out in that locked room upstairs.

I won’t give too much away about what transpires, but it involves some classic retro themes, including witchcraft, Satanism, and skeezy pizza delivery guys. It’s funny to think that there was such a boom in Satan-related movies in the 70′s and 80′s, and that the genre has almost vanished since. Did the Church Lady reduce the Prince of Darkness to a punchline?

Anyway, The House of the Devil really impressed me. It’s an indie horror movie that manages to lay out some serious atmosphere and achieve a quiet, suspenseful tone that is almost entirely absent from modern horror movies. It reminded me of some of my favorite old Movies of the Week and supernatural thrillers like The Haunting of Julia, Burnt Offerings and Rosemary’s Baby (which is an obvious reference here).

housedevilsam

I also loved Donahue as the lead – in her fitted flannel and brunette ‘do she brought back memories of many of my favorite horror heroines, and her resemblance to lookers like Brooke Adams, Jessica Harper, Margot Kidder and others is played to nicely.

In a day when horror favorites of days past are being mined for new profit without much care or concern for what made them special, its nice to see a filmmaker pay measured and well-researched tribute to an all but abandoned form of storytelling. (Even the opening credits – which feature an out-of-nowhere freeze-frame title card like the best of them – are pitch-perfect.) If you’re ready to be creeped-out by a trip back to the good old days, settle in on a chilly night to The House of the Devil and you won’t be disappointed.

RATING (OUT OF 5):

ReviewFourSkully

The House of the Devil is rated R for violence, adult themes, harm to pizza and gratuitous hair-feathering. It is currently available On Demand from some cable providers and Amazon (check out the widget below), and will play in limited theatrical runs starting October 30th.

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Buzz created CampBlood.org in 2003 to meet a need for a safe place for weirdos of all stripes to discuss horror movies from a queer perspective. Now that the campers have overtaken the Camp staff and locked them in the Arts & Crafts cabin he is questioning that decision.