I doubt that many people born after 1980 would have much nice to say about House of the Devil — it’s not an homage, spoof, or parody of a certain subset of early ’80s horror films as much as it actually is one of those movies. If you’d heard nothing about it and picked it up, casually, at a DVD store and watched it at home, you may never realize that it’s a 2009 movie, and it certainly shares nothing in common with its contemporaries, with their big-chested squealers, buff heroes, and Rob Zombie soundtracks. Horror nubiles simply might not understand House of the Devil.
On first blush, the idea behind making a 1980 horror film that’s neither a remake or a sequel sounds itself as gimmicky as the other options, and cheaper, too. Exchange CGI effects for some bad hair and a rotary phone, and voila(!), right? Writer/director Ti West, however, doesn’t just settle for period-appropriate details; he nails the look, feel, tone, film grain, score, and pacing of an actual ’80s occult film. It is precise. Indeed, Ti West has done for ’80s horror what Black Dynamite did for blaxtploitation films, by recreating rather than re-imagining. The result, ironically, is that House of the Devil is not just one of the best horror movies of 2009, but of 1981, as well.
The premise is brilliantly simple: Samantha (Jocelin Donahue), a college sophomore desperate for cash to pay for the first month’s rent on an apartment she’s just leased, agrees to take a strange, last-minute babysitting job for a strange man and his wife on the very night of a lunar eclipse. Samantha doesn’t realize until it’s too late, however, that she’s being set up for use in a satanic ritual.
It really is as straightforward as that. There are no b-plots, twists, or even boogeymen. Save for about 20 seconds around the half-hour mark, nothing really happens for the first hour and 20 minutes of The House of the Devil, which is very much a part of the movie’s appeal. Those familiar with late ’70s / early ’80s horror films, especially those that dealt with the occult (including, say, The Exorcist) may recall the seemingly interminable periods of dead space. There is no tension and release. No comedic moments to break the spell. It’s just a long meticulous, sometimes tediously sleepy build toward its creepy finale. The momentum is slow, but steady, gaining steam not by presenting a series of jump scares and a progressive body count, but by teasing your imagination. To that end, The House of the Devil also suffers, slightly, from the same problems that plagued many of those ’80s films in that nothing the filmmaker presents could ultimately compete with the horrors you conjure in your own mind. But here, at least, it’s nothing approximating a let down.
Indeed, in the end, it is the pacing and atmospherics that set The House of the Devil apart from every other horror movie of the year, or decade, even. The suspense is lingering and prolonged, and the tension slowly builds, ratcheting, tightening its grip, seemingly testing your endurance. There’s really only one potential victim in The House of the Devil and only one narrative focal point, so there’s nothing else to distract your attention away.
What’s truly remarkable about The House of the Devil, however, is that this throwback gimmick never feels like a gimmick at all. There are no nods or winks toward ’80s conventions; it’s very matter of fact, and never distracting. It’s just an outstanding wet-your-pants scary movie that feels like it was released 30 years late.