In all the excitement over Paranormal Activity, you likely missed the best indie horror film of the year. Ti West’s The House of the Devil manages to create enormous suspense while successfully recreating an era and a genre. Its recent release on DVD will hopefully bring more visitors to the Devil’s house.
It may surprise you to learn just how good this film is, since it tells an easily recognizable and fairly derivative tale. Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) is a college student in the mid-’80s who, in need of some extra money, finds a too-good to-be true babysitting gig in a rambling, isolated house. A incredibly creepy and very tall Mr. Ulman (Tom Noonan) comes to the door and tells her that, actually, he and his wife don’t need a babysitter, they simply need her to stay in the house a few hours with their elderly mother who spends all of her time in the attic (spoiler alert: grandma is a horrifying hell-beast).
They leave her with her ’80s-era communication technology (a rotary phone that gives her nothing but her roommate’s answering machine) and the fun begins. We wander with Samantha through the rambling arts and crafts house, clues of strangeness and an atmosphere of disquiet everywhere until, finally, we get to see the secrets this house hides.
In an age of ironic reboots, one of the pleasures of House of the Devil is its effort to recreate the look and feeling of a film from a period genre without the snarky, knowing sensibility that has become pretty central to most smart popular entertainment. This has been especially true in genre entertainment where, really since Tarantino, the uber-movie nerd ability to splice film genetics and knowingly sample source material has become coin of the realm. Wes Craven’s Scream remains the gold standard for ironizing along these lines.
House of the Devil is a very different creature of the night. West shows all of his influences, ranging from Polanski to Kubrick. This is clearly a filmmaker who did his time watching Rosemary’s Baby, When a Stranger Calls and The Hills Have Eyes and expects his audience to have done the same. What he creates is less a riff on these films and more a kind of formal experiment in faithful reproduction. He achieves this in part by faithfully recreating the ’80s, from the music Samantha listen to the Sony Walkman with orange ear pads she clamps down over her head of feathered hair. The film becomes almost a kind of period piece, an ’80s costume drama that invites us into a very different world.
Not such a different world, you might think, but it was at least an era where the state of communications made such tales of horror both possible and truly horrifying. Unable to text or change her Facebook status to “OMG! Satanists are trying to kill me, help!”, Samantha’s efforts to make contact become increasingly frustrating and frightening. West masterfully couples this sense of isolation with an ability to slowly, even ponderously, develop a sense of dread. West refuses to go the CGI route in this film, both because of budget and because of his sensibility, and so we never see any raven-haired pale children shambling toward us out of dark passages or experience the sudden shock of fast, gory editing. Yet House of the Devil manages the difficult and forgotten art of producing fear rather than manipulating us into it.
West deserves most of the credit for making this work but the small cast also turns in impressive performances. Tom Noonan is so scary that I might run away were I to see him in public. If you ever caught him in a little known mid-’90s psychological thriller called The Wife you understand why he makes the perfect satanic high priest. Donahue doesn’t show great range but is perfect for the role. Greta Gerwig is hilarious as Samantha’s difficult and, not surprisingly, doomed roommate.
A nice featurette, Behind the House of the Devil, gives a sense of West’s vision of the film, deeply influenced by the Polanski-Kubrick auteur horror. The deleted scenes, as West himself makes clear, contain footage he never intended to use and so are a bit less interesting than fully developed scenes that just didn’t work out because of timing or film length. The audio commentary proved somewhat disappointing as it’s a one-sided conversation between West and Donahue, with the latter’s comments never really becoming more incisive than how she liked wearing the flannel shirts that are now back in style but was less keen on the high-waisted jeans. West, on the other hand, gives a great deal of insight into the difficulties, and the renegade pleasures, of making an indie film on a shoestring.
Finally, I have to mention that I loved West’s decision to connect the film to the ’80s “satanic panic”. The film opens with text, documentary style white script on a black background, noting the widespread belief in malefic satanic covens kidnapping children in the ’80s, a series of urban legends that I explored in a recent book, Satan in America: The Devil We Know (Rowman & Littlefield October 2009). West’s willingness to examine an era’s strange obsessions as well as the films produced by those obsessions makes The House of the Devil a work of cultural archaeology — and a really good scare.