I’ve been hearing good things about Pearl and X, both films that were directed by Ti West and came out this year, and so when I saw that his 2009 film House of the Devil was on The Criterion Channel I decided to give it a shot.
I mostly loved it and I’m gonna try not to spoil anything as this is definitely a film that’s best if you go into it not knowing very much. It is also a film that clearly takes its influences from late 1970s/early 1980s horror. It is definitely a slow burn, that only gets “exciting” in the last twenty minutes. I put exciting in quotes because I found the rest of the film exhilarating, but not a whole lot happens in that build-up.
Joceline Donahue plays Samantha, a college student in need of help. Her roommate is terrible and she desperately wants to move. She’s found a place to rent, but she’s got to come up with the first month’s deposit, and she’s unemployed and broke. When she sees a flyer for someone needing a babysitter she immediately gives it a call. Despite the guy who answers the phone sounding like a creep and standing her up on their first meeting, she takes the job.
She gets her friend (Greta Gerwig) to drive her out to the isolated (and close to a cemetery) house where she meets Mr. Ulman (Tom Noonan). He is strange, and kind of creepy. The house is big, old, and creepy as well. He tells her he lied, that this isn’t a babysitting job, but rather a looking after his elderly mother-in-law job. She is healthy and gets around just fine, so really all Sam has to do is make sure no emergencies happen and it will be smooth sailing. Especially since the mom is a private person and will likely stay in her room.
Despite the creepiness, and the warnings from her friend Sam stays. It should be easy, and besides the guy is offering $400 for one night’s work.
This is a horror movie called The Devil’s House so we are primed for Mr. Ulman to be a serial killer, or the mother-in-law to be a holy terror, or for devil worshipers to try to get into the house. Ti West knows this expectation and plays with it. For most of the film’s run-time literally, nothing happens. Sam sits in the house alone and bored. She watches TV. She orders a pizza. She plays pool while listening to her Walkman. She explores the house. But the way the film is shot. The way the camera lingers in certain places. The way it was shot in 16mm giving it a grainy look. The way the music acts like a creepy horror movie score. The way the house looks with its weird rooms, and deep shadows. The way Sam is perpetually scared. All of these things build up unrelenting tension.
There is one scene, relatively early on, that happens to someone who is not Sam, that lets you know all this tension building isn’t for naught, but mostly it’s just playing with your expectations. I loved it. So much so that I was actually kind of disappointed when things actually started to happen.
I’ll stop myself there. I have a few reservations about the ending, but mostly I really liked this one.