The House of the Devil

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.

The House of the Devil

Director: Ti West
Cast: Jocelin Donahue, Tom Noonan, Greta Gerwig
DVD Release Date: 2010-02-02

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.


So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.