The House of the Devil is my kind of horror movie. Because it is one giant homage to classic horror films of the 70’s and 80’s. A slow burn to a riveting nightmare finale.
The House of the Devil came out in 2009. Seeing it in theaters made me feel like a kid again, sneaking out to watch scary movies on my parent’s TV in the wee hours of the night. Everything from the songs they chose to the slow pacing brought me back. Even the poster art evokes classic haunted house films from the 70’s and 80’s.
I am, of course, a huge horror fan. Analyzing the films that I deem ‘the best’, it’s clear that I love the slow build. Most of the films I cite as the best horror films are from the 70’s and 80’s. They do not use CGI. They use practical in-camera effects. They actually let you get to know the characters so you care about them when they are in peril. They don’t go for predictable and trite jump scares every 10 minutes. They use unique orchestral music on the score, and/or perfect songs from the time. They have a psychological factor that makes things even more disturbing. Think of these films: The Shining, The Omen, The Exorcist, Halloween, The Fog, The Burning, Suspiria, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Thing.
So Ti West must share my love of these films, because he made a film that takes everything from these movies and recreates them in 2009. From the opening credits you know that this movie is a throwback retro experience. Even the grain of the film and slightly faded-out daytime shots feel like they were shot on 35mm film stock from 1978. Apparently he actually shot in on 16mm to give it that dated and grainy look. Nothing digital on this movie. The fonts even look like horror films of the 70’s, as do the almost random freeze-frames during the credit sequence.
The plot is simple, as it should be. A poor college student takes a babysitting job to get money to move into her new apartment. She arrives at the creepy house and makes some demonic discoveries. The plot is pretty much a collection of any horror film’s generic tropes. The plot isn’t what matters, it’s the mood and the building of creepy tension. After they show you a particularly graphic and surprising bit of gory violence, you are then always on edge. Waiting for the next one. You now know what the film is capable of. So any scene of the heroine walking around the house is fraught with danger and anxiety.
The lead actress is perfectly cast. A pretty brunette actress named Jocelyn Donahue. I have to say, her features reminded me of several classic 70’s horror movie heroines. Check out photos of Margot Kidder from The Amityville Horror, Barbara Hershey from The Entity, and Jessica Harper from Suspiria. I’m not saying that the director intentionally cast Jocelyn because she might remind people of these actresses, but it sure did make me think of those characters. And also Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode in Halloween. All women were attractive, slender, and portrayed vulnerability and terror very well.
I love when a film chooses songs that I have a personal connection with and that bring me right back to that time in my life. This film nailed that. The first song we hear is an instrumental that made me think of The Car’s song, “Moving in Stereo”. It isn’t that song, but the chord progression and eerie vibe of it is strangely similar. The next song used is Greg Kihn’s song “The Break Up Song (They Don’t Write ‘Em)”. Then they really got me by using a lesser-known favorite of mine by Thomas Dolby called “One of Our Submarines”.
“One of our submarines is missing tonight
Seems she ran aground on maneuvers
Bye-bye empire, empire bye-bye
Shallow water – channel and tide”
All of these songs have an eerie mood to them, or at least a memorable minor chord structure. Then the song they play while our heroine dances around the creepy house is the classic 80’s song from The Fixx, “One Thing Leads to Another.” This places the film’s events in 1983 based on that song’s release date. (The date is never given in the film) And all of these classics place me in middle school. The Walkman that she listens to in the movie was possibly the exact model that I also had in the 80’s.
Another excellent casting choice is Tom Noonan as Mr. Ulman, the man who hires our protagonist for the babysitting job. For me, I will always think of Tom Noonan’s very unsettling performance as The Tooth Fairy serial killer in Michael Mann’s amazing 1986 film, Manhunter. His tall frame and calculated manner of speaking just add to his oddness. He uses a cane with a metal eagle handle, which may or may not be a tip of the hat to Angel Heart, where Robert DeNiro has a very similar cane. And that character was indeed, the devil himself.
This film truly takes it’s time with the story development, and reminds me a lot of another 70’s horror classic, Burnt Offerings. This is a 1976 haunted house movie starring the great Oliver Reed and Karen Black. One of the agreements they make, just like in The House of the Devil, is to be there to take care of the mother upstairs. This person may exist, they may not exist, they may be something else entirely. But the caretaking of an unseen person (force) in the house is done well in both films. And Karen Black also fits the requirement of being a slender brunette heroine. I used to watch Burnt Offerings anytime it came on. It was a rare horror film that was rated PG so it could be shown uncut on network TV. I am certain director Ti West watched it as well, as the similarities are myriad. Or to reference The Exorcist, the similarities are legion.
It isn’t giving away any spoilers to say that this film has something to do with Satanic cults. The preface of the film talks of how a majority of American citizens in the 80’s believed in abusive Satanic cults, and how this film is based on true events. So comparisons to another lesser-known 1971 horror film called The Mephisto Waltz are appropriate. That film starred Jacqueline Bisset and Alan Alda, and I also would watch this on TV whenever it came on. The poster had a naked Jacqueline Bisset drawing a Satanic pentagram on the floor. This film, along with Rosemary’s Baby, dealt with Satanists in mainstream cinema, and also treated them as ordinary regular likable people instead of ridiculous cartoon characters. Perhaps normalizing them makes them even scarier.
The whole Satanic cult theme even resonated with me, as I read several books about this phenomenon during the 80’s. I remember sort of hiding them because I didn’t want my parents or anybody thinking that I was into Satanism or anything. One book was called “Say You Love Satan” and another was called “Devil’s Child.” I had these books on my secret bookshelf so as not to draw attention. I was fascinated by the topic, and loved reading horror stories by H.P. Lovecraft, Stephen King, Clive Barker and others. I was a huge fan of heavy metal, and followed the silly lawsuits against artists like Judas Priest and Ozzy Osbourne. The PMRC was trying to ban or label musical works that they deemed offensive. I became a huge fan of Slayer, with “South of Heaven” being my favorite album from them. I even read some books by Anton Szandor LaVey, the founder of the Church Of Satan. Satanism is hugely misunderstood, and was basically an invention in San Francisco created to piss off religious people. The core of Satanism is to reject any religious dogma, and believe in personal power instead. So a 70’s throwback horror film dealing with a Satanic cult? Sign me up.
Not to oversell it, but the climax of this film is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. After a long tense build, when the film finally opens up the gates it’s a bloody nightmare. Our heroine escapes from a Satanic ritual and engages in battle with numerous things in the house. A lunar eclipse occurs while all hell breaks loose. She is wearing white shroud that gets covered with blood, evoking memories of Sissy Spacek from Carrie. Mrs Ulman reminds me of Billie Whitelaw’s evil nanny character from the original film The Omen. Some musical cues sound like they are straight out of The Shining. She wields a kitchen knife up elaborate wooden stairs, which is reminiscent of Psycho, Halloween, and Suspiria. I don’t believe any of these directorial choices are accidental. The filmmakers want us to be thinking of all these other classic horror films as we watch this one. You’ve gotta know your history. The final 20 minutes of this movie is a horror fan’s dream come true.
I guarantee that some people will dislike this film and call it boring. They are probably more suited to hyper-edited manic horror films with killings and maimings every 8 minutes like clockwork. I would even surmise that people 21 and under won’t like this film because of the films they’ve been raised on. But people 21 and over will probably enjoy this film for its loving embrace of the tenets of 70’s and 80’s horror cinema. For me, this film delivers everything that I want out of a horror film. I’ll gladly enter the House of the Devil.