“I go a lot on my gut feelings,” smiles the landlady, standing in the kitchen doorway. “And I have a good one about you.” Sam (Jocelin Donahue) smiles back, her face hopeful if slightly anxious. It’s a big step, renting an apartment. She checks the newspaper ad, clutched in her fist, then follows the landlady outside, ready to commit. If only Sam knew, as you know, that this landlady is played by Dee Wallace, who played her share of smart girls who relied on their “gut feelings” in ’80s horror movies. You can see the sign. But Sam can’t. That’s not her job here, in a movie called The House of the Devil.
It’s sometime in the 1980s. Sam’s a sophomore at the blandly brick university, a good girl whose efforts to study and keep her Farrah flip intact are stymied by the fact that her roommate uses the room to entertain unnamed boys. Sam doesn’t complain, exactly, though she does wish out loud that Heather (Heather Robb) would let her use her own bed at least a few hours a day. Feeling desperate, Sam signs on for the apartment, then worries that she can’t make the $400 first month’s rent. No matter that her best friend Megan (the most excellent Greta Gerwig) can ask her wealthy dad for the cash “You’re never gonna be homeless,” Megan promises). Sam wants to do it herself.
No surprise, this determination leads Sam directly into trouble. Sort of. Chancing on a flyer posted on campus — “Baby $itter Wanted” — Sam calls the number. The house is far from town, a point made when Megan, who agrees to drive her carless friend, complains that she had to look it up on a map. Megan makes her promise not to take the job if the people look “weird.” The man who answers the front door is quite, as Megan asserts, “beyond weird.” Visible at first as only a hand on a gold-headed cane, Mr. Ulman (Tom Noonan) immediately declares his obviously wrongful interest (“Such beautiful girls!”), then invites them inside. You know they shouldn’t go — and by now they know they shouldn’t go. But Sam presses on because, as she says more than once, “I need the money.”
Such practicality doesn’t exactly make Sam the so-called deserving (i.e., busty or lascivious) victim who showed up in so many ’80s horror movies. She’s more the Laurie Strode type, too trusting at first, resilient and intrepid when necessary, and not bad with a knife. She’s also exceptionally patient, which means the film has a long time to watch her come to the realization that something is most definitely wrong with this house.
Sam’s discovery takes the usual shape. Once Megan has left her (after predictable, brief remonstration: “Are you out of your mind?!”) and Ulman and his wife Vivian (perfectly creepy Mary Woronov) head out for their eclipse-of-the-moon-oriented date, Sam begins to wander through the big old house. She wanders a lot, her coming to inevitable and horrified consciousness a gradual and nerve-grinding process, not unlike the slow build-up in Trigger Man, Ti West’s first film (which was, in fact, less interested than this one in revisiting conventions than citing and then resisting them). Sam’s end is disturbing but also banal, even silly, but the end is not the point.
The point is your anticipation. Sam serves as familiar vehicle, filmed from low angles and in deep shadows, her thin form silhouetted in doorways and her finger barely trembling as she dials the rotary phone on the kitchen wall. She watches a little TV (Night of the Living Dead, but of course), plays some deft pool, listens to the comically large cassette tape player she harnesses to her hip. Her inability to see what’s in front of her is underscored when the camera alternately tracks along behind her, leans in for too-close close-ups or waits at the head of the stairs for her to emerge from utter darkness. Sam thinks she has a chance, and you want her to have one, but even when she begins to carry a kitchen knife with her, well… she is wandering in the house of the devil, after all.
Given all this, her ending up in the attic is no surprise, and neither is her abuse by satanic-culty nutcases wearing hoods and wielding animal skulls. While Sam’s retaliation offers its own pleasures, her fundamental good-girlness, like Laurie Strode’s or Rosemary Woodhouse’s, also makes this abuse seem broadly meaningful. It’s a typical assault on innocence and idealism, that mythic prelapsarian state, the one variously re-imagined in movies as childhood, suburbia or a sophomore’s virginity. It’s helpful here that Sam is game and bright, and that her captors are insistently unintelligent. But even as this disparity is cast in conventional moral terms, it doesn’t matter. For this is the essential lesson of the ’80s: stupidity is inexorable.