The House of the Devil is like a mediocre haunted house. You meander through expecting something terrifying to be lurking around every corner, but when it’s over, you’re thinking, “That wasn’t so bad.” Part of the reasons so-so haunted houses are scary at all, is that you walk into them with the mentality that you’re going to be scared. The only reason The House of the Devil is unnerving is because you know what’s coming. You wait and anticipate nearly the entire movie and when the time finally comes for the big reveal, it’s not so frightening.
The protagonist is the sweet, unsuspecting Samantha (Jocelin Donahue). Much of the movie features Samantha bopping around in her snow hat conveniently topped with a bouncy ball for our own amusement. Her jeans are high, her hair is feathered and she never leaves home without her trusty Walkman; does that scream 80s or what?
The opening scene of the flick shows Samantha checking out an apartment she hopes to move into with her best friend Heather. There’s little purpose to the scene except to establish the point that Samantha is going to need some money. While walking across campus she happens upon a help wanted sign looking for a babysitter. She calls the number, gets the job and gets Heather to give her a ride to a creepy abode in the middle of nowhere.
The house is home to Mr. and Mrs. Ulman (Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov). Mr. Ulman offers to pay Samantha a nice sum for just a few hours of her time but, naturally, there’s a catch. The Ulmans don’t actually have a child. Well, they do, but he’s older. Mr. Ulman would like Samantha to keep an eye on his mother-in-law, an elderly woman who lives upstairs. He assures her it’s very unlikely she’ll come out of her room and Samantha won’t have to do anything beyond turning the TV on and off and ordering in some pizza. Great for her, not so great for those watching this movie because that’s what’s going on the majority of the time.
Nearly the entire film, save for the last 20 minutes, is just a buildup to the grand not-so-horrifying finale. If the camera didn’t love Donahue, most of the film would be unbearable. Samantha is an obvious but intriguing character. You can’t help but like her. Even Greta Gerwig who plays her friend Heather is good in her role and provides a bit of comedic relief. The Ulman family is also excellently cast. Noonan and Woronov make the perfect team. Minus the obvious warning signs, like the house being located near a cemetery and the whole no-kid thing, they come across as nice people. This is horror; being nice only makes you creepier.
Overall, the movie is very well made. It completely recreates the feeling of 80s horror; less CGI, more imagination and a whole lot of corn syrup. Even the camera work harkens back to simpler days. All of the shots are noticeably long and there is rarely more than two points of view. It sounds shallow, but in The House of the Devil ‘s case it works. Long shots leave the viewer with far more time to build up nerves over what could be lurking around the corner. Director Ti West has the right idea; it’s unfortunate the result is unfulfilling.
After the movie is over and you think back, there will be a number of scenes in question. It’s not that they’re not enjoyable to watch but when you find out they have no significance, it spoils any impression they’ve made. At one point, Samantha goes from sitting in a quiet living room, to dancing around the place blasting Fixx’s “One Thing Leads to Another.” It’s an effective change of pace and a rather fun scene but it literally comes crashing down when she knocks over a vase. Nobody jumped out of the darkness when the piece shattered. The mother didn’t even pop her head out of her room to see what’s going on. Nothing happened; there was no point.
The House of the Devil completely relies on the fact that the audience knows what’s coming. You know what would make this movie really freaky? Labeling it something other than a horror film and catching the audience off guard. Instead, a bunch of horror fans will walk into this theater waiting an hour and ten minutes for a big terrifying culmination and get something that’s just not so scary.
The House of the Devil left me with one burning question; why did all of the pizza taste bad? If you know why, please tell me.