Ti West’s (oc)cult chiller reminds us that the 1980s were a truly frightening time.
Made for less than one million dollars in just 18 days, 2009 indie horror The House of the Devil might be set during the early '80s but it’s far from a mere kitschy trip down memory lane. Instead it’s reverently retro, ditching irony in favour of authenticity. Most impressively, Ti West’s third feature patiently, agonisingly builds to its claret-covered climax.
The House of the Devil is cult in feel, cult in focus – delving, as its title suggests, into satanic rites. Set in West Springfield, the plot is simple but effective: desperate for cash so that she can flee her nymphomaniac roommate, student Samantha (a nicely understated Jocelin Donahue) takes on a mysterious babysitting job on the night of a lunar eclipse. Providing her with sage, wittily delivered warnings is her best friend Megan (mumblecore fave Greta Gerwig).
The house is occupied by a genteel but sinister middle-aged couple, Mr and Mrs Ulman (horror veterans Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov). On arrival Samantha is immediately informed that she’s been asked there under false pretences and that the couple do not have a child; instead she’s to watch over Mrs Ulman’s (unintroduced) elderly mother. Spooked by the deception and intimidated by the new assignment, Samantha is eager to leave but reconsiders when she’s offered considerably more for her troubles. Big mistake.
The film claims to have been based on a "true unexplained events" although West has since admitted to "creative leniency" in this respect. He wrote the screenplay straight after college, years before the film’s production, and rather than simply adhering to a horror template, he draws on his own college days.
Though refreshingly non-tongue-in-cheek, nor indeed relentless in its references, The House of the Devil is credibly and gratifyingly of the '80s. Beyond the wardrobe and hair, it was shot on 16mm – giving it the appropriate grainy, lo-fi aesthetic, and is punctuated with of-the-era (but not obvious) tracks. There are further lovely touches such as the retro opening and closing credits, a sly nod to the film Loverboy and a music video style sequence (which recalls Risky Business) set to The Fixx’s ‘One Thing Leads to Another’ – ostensibly a release but which actually contributes craftily to the overall suspense.
West was keen to make it as much a mystery as a horror and the slow build pays dividends as Samantha explores the house and pieces together the clues. As with the best horror movies, the paranormal predicament is rendered believable by sincere, committed performances. Gerwig’s kooky naturalism is a huge boon, Donahue’s Samantha is someone that you’ll will to flee her peril, and neither are portrayed as blundering to their own ruin.
It might feel authentically '80s but its heroines are far from the trope identified in Scream of the "big-breasted girl who can’t act who’s always running up the stairs when she should be going out the front door." These girls are smart, independent and Gerwig is characteristically funny. Unfortunately for them (and us) they’re also doomed. Obviously.
The House of the Devil may seem formulaic but, skilfully drawn, likable heroines combined with West’s attention to detail and mastery of suspense lifts that formula from the doldrums, taking us satisfyingly from slow skilfully built horror to ferocious full-pelt terror. You have been warned.