The House of the Devil
Directed by: Ti West
Written by: Ti West
Starring: Jocelin Donahue, Tom Noonan, Mary Woronov, and Greta Gerwig
When someone is credited as the writer, director, and editor of a low budget horror flick, some recognition from the audience is due. Not only has this person decided to make a film on the cheap in one of the cheapest modern genres, but they put their name forward for sole responsibility should it completely tank. Unfortunately, writer/director Ti West must take that with The House of the Devil.
Filmed like a movie from the 80s, which is when it is set, The House of the Devil recreates the time period effectively through the use of music and hair styles. There is nothing else in the way of setting though, as we follow Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) on her adventures in Satanic babysitting.
Samantha is an absolutely pure, sympathetic character. She is fighting her way through college on her own and has just procured an apartment to live on her own away from her awful roommate. Scraping by is something she seems to know a lot about, but she seems happy nonetheless. The movies tell us, though, that she must suffer.
After answering a flier asking for a babysitter, Sam winds up in the middle of nowhere in an immaculate, old fashioned house. The would-be employers, Mr. and Mrs. Ulman (Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov), inform her that this isn’t actually a babysitting job. She’ll be watching over an unseen elderly mother to one of the creepy residents. It takes $400, but our protagonist agrees to do it.
This is where the thrills and chills are supposed to start. There is a growing sense of orchestrated dread as Sam watches TV, orders a pizza, and dances around the house. Music chimes in at all the appropriate moments for the jumps to start, but this controlled atmosphere rarely delivers any sort of thrills. In fact, the first hour sets up the premise, and aside from the grisly shooting of Sam’s friend and ride home Megan (Greta Gerwig), West really only sets up the story. Suspense is generated through abrupt telephone rings, doorbells, and light switches, but a second viewing will likely dull most viewers even more.
West is a director who has not quite found his footing. To say this movie looks and feels like Halloween or Carrie would be to group it with movies far superior and entertaining. The cinematography, though well textured and at times effective, feels too basic. Shots are almost always set up to give you some kind of unique angle to the action, but it’s more annoying and distracting than unique. It can be effective, like when the camera pans out to show Sam in the house, the window frames making her look like she’s in prison. More often than not, though, the camera is positioned at some awkward indie angle that does nothing for the story but shout, “This isn’t your average horror movie!”
Sadly, this is an average horror movie. It’s refreshingly ungory until the third act, where an appropriately bloody Satanic ritual completes this movie’s insistence on rehashing everything that’s been used well in the genre and then using it poorly. Everything is constructed to make an impact, and the actors all show up, but The House of the Devil whispers when it should shout and bores when it should scare.
The House of the Devil (2009) was made almost by hand by Ti West, who wrote, directed and edited the movie. He understands that if there’s anything scarier than a haunted house, it’s a possibly haunted house. The movie provides an introduction to the Hitchcockian definition of suspense: It’s the anticipation, not the happening, that’s the fun. Sam is relieved when Mr. and Mrs. Ulman return, until they don’t seem prepared to give her the traditional ride home. She also meets Mother, who is considerably more spry than advertised. And there’s the family handyman named Victor. And Mother’s room turns out to be far, far different than you might expect.