The House of the Devil (2009)

Director:  Ti West
Studios:  MPI Media Group, Dark Sky Films
Starring:  Jocelin Donahue, Tom Noonan, Greta Gerwig, A.J. Bowen, Mary Woronov; ft. Dee Wallace
Tagline:  Talk on the Phone.  Finish Your Homework. Watch TV.  Die.
MPAA Rating:  R
Genre:  horror, terror, thriller, suspense, spawn of satan, religious occult
Scare score:  D
Rating:  A-

Plot overview:  Broke college student Samantha (Donahue) has just settled on a new apartment with her understanding landlady (Wallace).  The welcome change from her dingy, uninviting dorm room and roommate, however, will require extra cash that Samantha doesn't have.  Almost miraculously, Samantha manages to set up a babysitting gig for one night during a lunar eclipse that has the entire town - except for Sam's best friend Megan (Gerwig) - excited.  That night, Megan drives Sam out to the impressive yet isolated home where they meet the awkward Mr. Ulman (Noonan) and his somewhat bizarre wife (Woronov).  When Mr. Ulman explains that Sam will actually be watching his mother-in-law, Megan urges her to leave, but at the rate of $400 for 4 hours, the deal is too good for Sam to pass up.  Will the mysterious job end up being more responsibility than Sam bargained for?

I really pleasantly enjoyed this film.  From the second I saw the poster, I knew I liked the retro feeling about it, probably one of the nicest things director Ti West could have decided to do.  If you've read this blog before, you'll probably know that I love period pieces, be it 19th century England or the 1980s.  The opening credits, the costumes, the props, the soundtrack - that dance scene - the cinematography: it was all so great, such an interesting vintage feeling that reminds us of the 80s horror we so love.  The script especially was a breath of fresh air.  In a brief but nice homage to the ghosts of horror past, we have Dee Wallace (an acclaimed horror actress although the only movie I've reviewed that she's in is the 2007 remake of Halloween) welcoming us into the film in the role of a landlady.

That being said, we have a lot of time to focus on these details because this film sure as heck takes its time to start the scares.  I believe that it wasn't until the 35 minute mark that we witnessed some real horror instead of just suspense and interactions that give us the creeps.  I'll say it now and I'll say it again later, but if you're looking for constant thrills, gore, and physical horror - this isn't the movie for you.

Even after we know that there is trouble afoot, most likely heading towards our babysitter, the film returns to a calm (but never too slow) pace, following Sam around the dark, winding Victorian home, at times making us aware both of the evil lurking out in the eclipsed night as well as the evil still dwelling within the house.

Speaking of the house itself, is this an adequate title for the film?  I mean, sure, a lot of the movie's action takes place inside a house, but when we hear this title (or see the movie poster) our minds jump to The People Under the Stairs, to name one, and as soon as babysitting for strangers becomes the obvious plot, seasoned horror movie lovers will know we're headed towards a spawn of satan deal.  That being said, if it really isn't the devil's house, and the satanic rituals here have more to do with the people themselves, I just think the title becomes a little distant from the plot.

Nowadays, you can't do spawn of satan without thinking of The Omen or Rosemary's Baby (which this film made a multitude of allusions to), but The House of the Devil - and I'm still surprised it came out in 2009 because I have no idea where I was since I seem to have missed its publicity and theatrical release - added its own touches and excitement to the genre.  Unfortunately, I can't say the same thing about the whole 'babysitter in peril' plot line, especially considering that Babysitter Wanted (which I saw on TV once upon a time) came out in 2008, just one year earlier.  Can you say awkward?

This movie doesn't have a lot of scares, but when it does scare it scares well.  We have some jumps (hey, AJ Bowen), and then just some real discomfort - I was very impressed with the makeup choices for the character we can assume to be Mr. Ulman's "mother-in-law."


Not surprisingly, as far as spawn of satan movies go, there isn't a very happy ending for our heroine here.  Also, staying true to some retro movies we know and love, the motive here is never made 100% clear, just some satanists doing their thang.

Final critique:  Here we have a fun, modern take on vintage horror.  From the 16mm footage to the heavy usage of low camera angles and dramatic zoom, the cinematography transports us from the onslaught of amateur, unoriginal slashers of today back to a time when suspense and terror were more important than blood and body counts (which this film also has).  This is a nice movie to watch when you have the time to sit and enjoy a horror movie.  This is not the right film to watch if you are looking for a fast-moving, gory, scream-filled ride on the horror train.  Impressive acting matched with a fun plot and a believable script lead to one good horror movie in The House of the Devil.