I’d wanted to see this ever since I came across a copy of the DVD in the horror section of JB-HiFi. Had I not been broke as shit at the time, I’d have grabbed a copy then and there, but by the time I came back, it was gone and also, seemingly, out of print. Cut to two weeks ago when I was freshly recovered from a migraine in a Tokyo hotel room but still feeling weak and tired, and it came up on the rentals available on iTunes! Praise to those modern distribution methods!
What had intrigued me about the movie was the cover, and how well it appropriated the styles of haunted-or-otherwise-malevolent-house movies of the late 70s and early 80s. This is definitely a deliberate move, and the film itself pays significant homage not only to the themes and styles of the era, but right down to the filming equipment and techniques used.
They even sent out promotional copies of the film in clamshell VHS – now that might not seem all that great to you (though I hope it does) but my introduction to horror films for a long time, before I was allowed to see them by my parents, was looking at the macabre, intriguing artwork in the horror section of our video rental store, and it’s a brilliant throwback to that.
The story capitalises on what Wikipedia tells me was called the “satanic panic” of the early 80s, where beliefs were held among large sections of the community that satanic cults were operating just below the surface of society with sinister intent on a wide-spread scale.
Enter Samantha (Jocelin Donahue), a sophomore looking to get her own apartment rather than slum it in university accommodation with her reprehensible roommate. Her would-be landlady gives her a lot of grace in security bonds on the apartment, and instead just tells her that if she can get the first few week’s rent to her on time, the apartment is hers – the problem here being that Samantha doesn’t specifically have the first few weeks’ rent – but she notices an ad for a babysitter on a posting board, and calls for the job.
Despite some initial weirdness (the employer asks to meet Samantha on campus and then doesn’t show), she eventually gets the job. Her friend Megan (Greta Gerwig) drives her out and even offers to stay with her to help out but Samantha’s pretty adamant she should be fine. However, things get weird when the man hiring her, Mr Ulman (Tom Noonan) reveals that there’s no baby to sit for.
It’s actually just in case his elderly decrepit mother has any trouble in the night – Samantha has her misgivings, but he explains that no one would respond to an add asking for aged care. After getting a bit more money out of him, Samantha agrees to the job, however Megan freaks at the thought, and leaves the house incredibly upset at Samantha getting herself into a risky (or at the very least, dodgy) situation.
Mr Ulman and his wife head out for the evening, to a viewing party for that night’s lunar eclipse, and Samantha is left alone in the house with the elderly mother (who Mr Ulman assures is very, very private and will most likely not be seen at all). Now of course there wouldn’t be a plot if things didn’t start going wrong, but The House of the Devil takes an old-school approach here.
It’s not really a spoiler or a twist that the Ulmans are part of a satanic cult – the opening titles of the film make it clear that this is what the film is centring on, and the Ulmans are portrayed as just a bit creepier or unusual than most. So right from the start, you’re expecting that Samantha is going to be used as some part of a ritual, or that bad things are going to happen to her or that hordes of Satanists are going to start attacking the house.
What the film does instead is a text-book example of slow-burn tension, and it does it masterfully. The fair bulk of the movie is Samantha in the house, entertaining herself as she sees fit while the audience knows that it’s building to something. This is where the tension lies, because everything we’ve seen up until now is coded to say that evil’s afoot – we know it, Samantha has an idea about it, but she’s brushing that aside with in-universe rationalisations. The slow-burn of this tension is where it builds up and up to the point where the audience and Samantha are on the same page – the climax of the movie.
We’re given access into scenes that happen outside of the house, one which I knew would happen but its execution was such a surprise I won’t spoil it here. But these scenes escalate the tension for the viewer, not only to keep things moving and interesting, but to effect change in the story that propel it to the meeting point of Samantha’s perspective and the audience’s expectations.
Needless to say, the satanic aspect of the movie makes itself clear in the climax, and this is where the movie kind of falls apart. The amount of time given to the build-up can’t reasonably be replicated in the climax of the film, but it does feel like everything happens way too quickly. Because so much of the movie is spent with Samantha, waiting for the climax to happen, it means there’s a trade-off between tension-building and character-establishment with the villains. This isn’t always a bad thing, but the way the ending of the film rushes through its steps it means that there’s no real definition of just what the stakes involved are, beyond a general “Get out of the house, Samantha!” sensibility. This isn’t to say it’s a failed ending – it just doesn’t work as well as the rest of the movie – but it’s still visceral and disturbing.
The interesting thing I found is that the ending is also where the most modern cinematic techniques are put into play. The film is shot on 16mm which already gives it an authentic sense of being from the era its paying homage to, and director Ti West utilises techniques like zooming with the camera rather than pushing it along a dolly to really give it a sense that this is a low-budget movie being made at the zenith of low-budget horror movies of the late 70s and early 80s. The ending is where things like cross fades, jump cuts and masterful sound editing come into play, and it’s very effective, but the difference in style does mean the ending still feels like a different piece of the movie to what’s come before it.
But quibbles about the climax and denouement aside, the movie is great. It’s a really fitting homage to the movies of the era, and it does what it set out to do – create a tense, suspense-filled movie – really well. Jocelin Donahue is fantastic as Samantha, making her a vulnerable and likeable character without having to go out of her way to force those aspects into her character. And I can’t believe I’m about to semi-endorse this, but if they were to ever remake Suspiria, would be perfectas Susy.
Greta Gerwig is great (though perhaps a bit underused) as Megan, and manages to make what could have been an annoying, brash and abrasive character definitely come off as a girl who is passionately concerned for her friend (on a sidenote, the film passes the Bechdel test with aplomb). Tom Noonan makes a wonderfully unsettling presence out of Mr Ulman, his timidness and gentile nature really ramping up the sinister sense of “something’s not right” in all of his scenes (and I don’t know if it was intentional, but he definitely evokes Phantasm’s Tall Man in the way he holds his character – though this is possibly just due to Tom Noonan being very tall and dressed in a suit). Mary Woronov plays Mrs Ulman, and while I haven’t discussed her much, she gives a performance and is stylised perfectly as one of the classic evil-matriarchs of good-ol’ horror movies.
The House of the Devil is one of those movies that should have been bigger than it is, but in the modern climate of horror films, probably can’t find a wide audience due to it playing so against type. It gets a bit messy at the end, but that’s still not enough to derail everything else that came before it, and the preceding film is great. If you liked how much The Conjuring paid tribute to and felt like a movie from a bygone era, then The House of the Devil should be right up your alley too.