Ti West’s fourth motion picture undertaking, 2009’s The House of the Devil is an ’80s-style horror film clearly inspired by the classic shockers of yesteryear, and it even begins with a grindhouse-style opening title sequence that would make Quentin Tarantino smile. West wanted to emulate the likes of “The Amityville Horror” and “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” so much, in fact, that The House of the Devil claims to be based on true events even though the story is almost entirely fictional. Alas, it seems that West channeled so much effort into recreating the technical specifications of classic horrors that he neglected to write a script that’s worthy of his inspirations. Thus, while definitely atmospheric, The House of the Devil is an uneventful, mostly banal shocker which lacks punch and has limited replay value.
Sweet-faced college sophomore Samantha (Donahue) has had enough of her sex-crazed roommate, and begins looking to rent her own apartment. Problem is, she doesn’t exactly have enough money to afford a place of her own. When she spots a flyer advertising for a babysitter, Samantha jumps at the chance, calling the mysterious Mr. Ulman (Noonan) who’s in desperate need of assistance. When Samantha’s best friend Megan (Gerwig) drives her to Ulman’s ominous residence, she learns that she’s actually needed to watch over Ulman’s elderly mother-in-law. To secure her services, Ulman throws lots money at Samantha, and she agrees to the job. At first, Samantha’s “babysitting” assignment seems straightforward and worry-free, but, as the night wears on, she realizes she’s being threatened by insidious forces.
The House of the Devil is set in the 1980s; an era of walkmans, ancient televisions and absolutely no cell phones. It also genuinely looks as if it was filmed several decades ago. While most throwback horror films merely aim to recreate the spirit of its forerunners, Ti West went one step further, shooting on 16mm film stock and solely relying on old-school special effects (including classical-looking blood) to give the impression that the film has been rotting in a vault for twenty-five years. West’s recreation of the period is immaculate too, with era-specific costumes, hair styles, cars and set design effortlessly selling the illusion. Furthermore, West took heed of what worked in all of the best classic horror films. Therefore, House of the Devil is mostly dedicated to atmospheric build-up, and there are long takes which increase the sense of dread. West definitely had the right idea, which makes it even more unfortunate that the result is unfulfilling and underwhelming.
For the better part of an hour, West’s camera tracks Samantha as she aimlessly strolls around Mr. Ulman’s house, unoccupied and creeped out. While the film is peppered with effective standalone interludes that thrill or chill, at no point does the humdrum story become quite as terrifying or gripping as one might hope. And if you’re willing to endure the meandering narrative hoping that a knockout finale is right around the corner, you’re going to be disappointed by the familiar-feeling climax that’s more repellent than chilling. The payoff is completely inadequate — after a good 70 minutes of restrained build-up, all we get is a slapdash chase ripped out of a conventional torture porn movie. The weak conclusion renders the creepy build-up moot, which is a shame considering the excellence of Eliot Rockett’s cinematography and the charm of Jocelin Donahue’s believable performance.
At the very least, The House of the Devil is an ideal chance to indulge in some retro horror atmosphere. If you didn’t know better, you could easily believe that it came from the vaults of classic terror, which only furthers the disappointment of West’s slipshod script. You may enjoy the film somewhat in the moment, but when it ends you’ll shrug, let out a resounding “meh,” and never feel inclined to watch it again.