The House of the Devil (Reviewed by Sarah Loftus)
Starring Jocelin Donahue (Insidious 2), Tom Noonan (Damages), Mary Woronov (The Devil’s Rejects), Greta Gerwig (Portlandia) and AJ Bowen (You’re Next). Directed by Ti West.
A neat freak and germophobe sharing a small dorm room with a slovenly roommate, college student Samantha Hughes (Donahue) has just found the perfect apartment. Lacking the cash to make the down payment she tears a number from a flier advertising ‘Baby $itter Needed’ and makes the call, agreeing to meet the client on campus that morning. The client fails to show and, disappointed, Samantha tells her friend Megan (Gerwig) she just wants to forget the whole thing. Megan offers to get money from her wealthy father to pay Samantha’s down payment but Samantha says she wants to earn it herself, despite having less than a week to do so.
When the client later calls her back and offers her $100 for just four hours of babysitting Samantha can’t resist. Sensibly, Samantha brings Megan with her to meet her employers at their remote house. Megan doesn’t trust the client, Mr. Ulman (Noonan) and tries to talk Samantha into walking away. Samantha badly wants the money, especially since Ulman has increased the fee to overcome her obvious reluctance, and insists on taking the job over Megan’s objections. Megan is clearly not happy about it, but agrees to leave and come back for Samantha at 12:30.
Alone, Samantha explores the remote Victorian house and begins to realize her employers haven’t been at all honest with her and something is very, very wrong.
The House of the Devil was made in 2015 but is set in the 1980s and the filmmakers did a magnificent job of making it look as if it were made then too. You could be excused for thinking this was a lost horror gem you’d somehow never heard of, or that had been made in the 80s and not released for thirty years. Everything from the poster, to the style of the titles, to Samantha’s Walkman, to the rotary phones is authentic. Shot on 16mm stock and using music from, and in the style of the era, the film not only looks like it was made in the 80s, it feels and sounds like it was too.
The film doesn’t give an exact date for when the movie takes place, but it’s presumably sometime around Christmas because the campus seems mostly deserted and we hear church bells play a Christmas carol. Based on some of the period music used (One Thing Leads To Another by The Fixx, One Of Our Submarines by Thomas Dolby and The Breakup Song (They Don’t Write ‘Em) by The Greg Kihn Band) it seems to be sometime around 1983.
The film plays well on the unease you have spending hours alone in an unfamiliar house with unfamiliar noises. To help reinforce this a large part of it has very little dialogue and no characters on screen beside Samantha. Despite this it doesn’t drag, but builds on audience anticipation of something happening. We know, even though Samantha doesn’t, that this is a horror movie and she’s even less safe than she comes to think she is. The film clearly expected an audience familiar to horror and plays on this familiarity instead of trying to trick or startle us with twist endings and unnecessary jump scares.
With a slow, tense, build to a sudden, gory – but not over the top – payoff, The House of the Devil is highly recommended for fans of new and 80s horror alike.