VOD film review: The House of the Devil
Alice Slater | On 20, Oct 2016
Director: Ti West
Cast: Jocelin Donahue, Tom Noonan, Mary Woronov, Greta Gerwig
Despite the generic title, ubiquitous setting and clichéd scenario, The House of the Devil is not to be overlooked: it’s a razor sharp throwback to the genre-defining horror movies of the late 70s and early 80s, guaranteed to delight slasher aficionados and petrify the casual viewer.
Based on the ‘Satanic panic’ that swept America during the 80s – in which satanic ritual abuse became the epicentre of a moral panic that spanned several decades – writer and director Ti West combines retro horror tropes with a contemporary flair for dramatic tension to create one heck of a chiller.
A skint student bites off more than she can chew when a babysitting job in an isolated family home takes, shall we say, a turn for the worse. Samantha (Donohue) is everything a classic scream queen should be: pretty, sensible, plucky and just a little bit naïve. The Ulmans (Noonan, Woronov) are a handsome yet sinister couple, who look as though they spent the 60s hanging out with Charles Manson. Despite a few red flags, Sam can’t resist the lure of $400 for a single night of babysitting in their spooky gothic abode.
From the ambiguous tagline (“based on unexplained true events”) to the nostalgic end credits, The House of the Devil is a pastiche of horror tropes: isolation, bad juju from a classic MacGuffin (in this case, an impending lunar eclipse) and enough unexplained bumps in the night to keep the viewer on edge, despite its relatively laid back tempo.
Indebted to the subtle camerawork and slow pacing of John Carpenter’s Halloween and the devilish tension of Rosemary’s Baby, the first hour contains less blood than an ad for sanitary towels as West remains true to his signature preference of atmosphere over gore. With the bleached-out colour palette of 16mm film, West absolutely nails the aesthetic of the period with both his analogue equipment and old school cinematography. The camera meanders between claustrophobic close ups, creeping zooms and eerily still long shots to create a stripped back antidote to the “Splat Pack” torture flicks of the contemporary US horror scene.
As Sam explores the grainy shadows and creaking antic of the house – a preamble to an inevitable bloodbath that could rival Carrie – best friend Megan’s (Gerwig) departing words take on an ominously accurate edge: “The game plan was: if they’re weird, we leave. This is beyond weird.”
A pared-back, minimalist masterpiece, The House of the Devil cements West as a horror director to be reckoned with.