October Nightmares #21: The House of the Devil (2009)


Where would the occult be without an endless stream of naive young babysitters? There's practically an entire cottage industry dedicated to duping and abducting the poor fools. Babysitter peril being a niche sub genre was especially true in the Seventies and Eighties, occurring in everything from Halloween to Child's Play to Adventures in Babysitting. With The House of the Devil (2009) director Ti West sought to tap into the horror genre's rich tradition of babysittercide. Building on his previous films The Roost and Trigger Man - because let's face it, who counts Cabin Fever 2? - West delivers a film that serves as an homage to old school occult movies, as well as being an excellent entry in its own right. One that takes forever to get anywhere - like an elderly computer user.

From the opening title card, The House of the Devil wears its retro heart on its leg warmers. An almost fetishistic attention to detail went into making the movie actually seem like it belonged in the Eighties. There are feathered hairstyles, clunky corded phones, and huge Walkman tape players. West even includes the lengthy 'protagonist walks through the neighbourhood while an upbeat pop-rock soundtrack plays' montage - a sequence that was in practically every movie of the era. But the homage to the Seventies and Eighties isn't mere set dressing - or even desperate ploy akin to the ropey "oh weren't the Eighties so cool?" pub party - instead West seeks to emulate slow-burning Hitchcockian trepidation. It's a distinctly taut style of filmmaking - one that values building tension through suspense and leitmotifs such as darkness. Which is why you don't see many Hitchcockian movies around anymore, most modern horror directors carry on like they've got a Jack in a Box in their pants that's about to go off.

Using the Satanic Ritual Abuse Panic of the Eighties as its 'historical' anchor, The House of the Devil tries to pull the same crafty move as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) by claiming it is based upon real events. I do not deny that either movie was 'inspired by' something purported to have taken place, but I am willing to state that they likely resemble the reality of the situation in the same way that an obese man scratching his scrotal area resembles juggling. The House of the Devil begins with its young female protagonist Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) desperately searching for a way to make money. And like all young women looking to earn a little extra cash, she ends the movie undergoing a bloody insemination process while a crowd of pensioners watch. A simple premise but one from which West is able to extract a lot of mileage.

West actually manages to subvert our expectations throughout, first we meet Mr. Ulman (Tom Noonan) and his wife (Mary Woronov) an elderly couple who hire Samantha as a babysitter. Clearly there's something off about the two; they live in a brooding and remote mansion, are cagey about meeting her in public, and lie regarding the identity of who they want Samantha to attend. At first it seems almost as though the plot is setting up a night of sex and death at the Village Green Preservation Society. West then throws a curve ball with the arrival of a mysterious and murderous stranger (A.J.Bowen), and it seems The House of the Devil is heading into slasher territory. The plot twists and turns, leaving the viewer guessing, until the spectacular climax. Indeed, it's almost an exercise in frustration trying to work out what kind of horror film The House of the Devil is going to be. Most of the runtime sees Samantha alone in the spooky old house, taking refuge in the mundane (reading, eating pizza, and exploring the rooms). One almost expects the wide-angled shots of the darkened corridors to reveal sinister figures. Or the tightly-focused camera work showing Sam going about her business to pan out and show fucking Slenderman dossing about in the background trying to catch the attention of Let's Players.

The House of the Devil is not that movie. Nor does it want to be. It exists as a film for genre fans; bathing in haunted house/slasher cliches like Lady Bathory baths in the blood of slain virgins. A friend said to me that it's basically 'Final Girl: The Movie' - referring to the lone female survivor's transformation from victim to villain confronting hard-ass by the end of the movie - and I couldn't agree more. Detractors claim that nothing much happens for three-quarters of the film's runtime. However, this simply isn't true. Sure, not a great deal of action occurs by modern horror standards - but a workplace massacre 'isn't that big a deal' set against those lofty standards. The House of the Devil builds atmosphere through the tried and tested method of character. Samantha's insecurities eat away at her during her lonely vigil, and the viewer can see her becoming increasingly unhinged by the eerily quiet house. So yes, a lot actually does happen in The House of the Devil. It's just not what some people liked or expected. I'm not sure what they wanted to happen: Tom Noonan to put on his Ripper costume from Last Action Hero and do the whole "that toy, can't hurt the boy," speech perhaps? Hold that thought, I've got fan fiction to write.