Director: Ti West
Producers: Josh Braun, Larry Fessenden, Roger Kass, Peter Phok
Writer: Ti West
Star: Jocelin Donahue
“You’re not being rude. I understand.”
“Actually, no . . . I’m afraid you don’t.”
THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL (2009) begins on the day of the 1983 total lunar eclipse, when college sophomore Samantha Hughes (Jocelin Donahue) finally finds respite from her dumpy undergraduate dorm and inconsiderate roommate. Faced with a hefty deposit for the rental of her dreams, she responds to an ad posted on campus: “BABY $ITTER NEEDED.”
Later that night, when Samantha and Megan (Greta Gerwig), her best friend, who agrees to give her a ride, arrive at the Ullman residence, they are forced to face an unsettling truth: this is no ordinary babysitting job. In fact, as Mr. Ullman (a supremely creepy Tom Noonan) hesitantly confesses to Samantha, there is no baby. “You see, we actually don’t have a child,” he says, adding: “We have a child, but he’s grown. It’s—this job tonight is not for a child, but for my wife’s mother.”
Samantha is understandably put off—couldn’t you have just put “Elder Care” on the sign, you fucking weirdo?—but is ultimately swayed into staying by Mr. Ullman’s promise of twice the pay, which comes to a whopping $400, or $100 per hour. Megan, for her part, is sufficiently spooked, and can’t seem to leave fast enough. It takes substantial coaxing on Samantha’s part for her to even agree to return to pick Samantha up afterward. It is only after Megan leaves, when Samantha is alone with the Ullmans and their creeping, silent house, that the true nature of the job becomes clear . . .
THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL (2009), which I alternately refer to as THE HOUSE OF SEVEN GABLES, HOUSE OF LEAVES, and THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE (because, apparently, the word “house” in a movie title is enough to completely bamboozle me) is, whatever you make of the name, singular. Though it is an homage to ‘80s horror (with elements of the ‘70s and ‘80s slasher sprinkled throughout in spite of the differing thematic content), it is also undeniably something radically new, as is made apparent by a striking style, outstanding acting performances, and masterful plotting. Patience pays off in this one: if you can push yourself through slow moments (which inspired such IMDb reviews as “Boooooooooooooooooooooooooring!!!!!!” and “any second now I’ll be blown away… maybe not”), you’ll reap a supremely spooky reward.
THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL is a 2000s indie film, which means that much of the buzz has been limited to the horror community (weirdos like me, who live and die by obscure ‘70s gore and little-known movie trailers). In fact, just yesterday (I think), The New York Times published “9 Indie Horror Flicks You May Have Missed This Millennium” which includes THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL (alongside other modern classics such as TEETH, IT FOLLOWS, and A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT). However, Ti West himself has a healthy fan base, especially following indie hit THE INNKEEPERS (released post-HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, in 2011) and 2012’s V/H/S, so to many, THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL is old news. Fanatics who closely follow West adore THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL—many I’ve spoken to consider it his greatest masterpiece. If you watched THE INNKEEPERS or THE SACRAMENT (2013) and enjoyed them, this might be the perfect picture to pull out this week, as a total solar eclipse fast approaches.
One of the most enchanting aspects of THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL is West’s painstaking care to mimic the filmic style of low-budget ‘80s horror. (In my opinion, it more closely resembles 1970s horror, actually—maybe because the ‘80s saw the decline of 16mm film, which is used instead of digital in this film—but the ‘80s musical hits that blare, cutting the tension of a bone-chilling slow build, clue us in.) Aside from the shooting, West takes every opportunity to zoom (as opposed to using today’s rolling dolly) and, with painterly quality, rolls out shot after shot of vintage color: reds and mustard yellows lurid and campy on the 1980s college campus where Samantha and Megan roam, a heady contrast with the muted Victorian mauves and grays of the Ullman home. However, West doesn’t overdo the whole ‘80s thing—there’s no over-commitment to clumsy cultural references (i.e. “Hey! Didja see Michael Jackson’s latest music video?”), a pet peeve that grinds on my nerves. Rather, the props, subtle and unremarked-upon, reflect the era: Samantha totes along a portable tape player that is, as Scott Tobias topically remarks, “the size of a Harry Potter paperback”; she uses a pay phone, a landline in her dorm room, and the Ullman’s hanging rotary to make calls; and, when she dances around the house, headphones on, we get a backside view of light-wash, high-waisted jeans—the kind that college kids now desperately scrounge for at thrift stores.
Jocelin Donahue’s performance as Samantha is likewise convincing in its understated, natural quality. What we actually know about Samantha is practically nil, yet she is easily recognizable as one of us (at least she is to me, a 24-year-old). Her passion for music as both an escape and a ritual; her tunnel vision when it comes to scoring some much-needed cash, her alternating frightful panic and rushed self-soothing (“It’s okay. Everything’s fine . . . she’s fine,” Samantha breathes after hastily dialing 9-1-1 [The voice of the operator? Inexplicably, Lena Dunham] after failing to reach Megan after calling for the third or fourth time) are utterly familiar. Jocelin Donahue doesn’t physically look like a college sophomore (though Ti West tries to convince us that she does, Mrs. Ullman [Mary Woronov] clucking, “You look awfully young to be in college!”), but her mannerisms, her hobbies, and both the outer dialogue that she speaks and the inner dialogue written all over her face bespeak Samantha, and nothing but Samantha, 27- or 28-year-old Jocelin Donahuge absent completely.
Likewise, Greta Gerwig sparkles as Megan. Iconic as she is, her portrayal of Samantha’s best friend is every bit the cigarette-smoking, flannel-clad cynic to Jocelin Donahue’s casual, shrugging, stoic Samantha, the legend that is Greta obscured by her focused embodiment of Megan. In every gesture, Gerwig portrays a savvy, smart-mouthed best-friend-to-the-final-girl, a modern incarnation of the more traditional sort of an earlier era (think Annie and Lynda in HALLOWEEN ), while still maintaining the understated sexiness of the scream queen and her companions. Had Gerwig performed alongside a less gifted performer than Donahue, she might have stolen the show entirely.
Viewers, be warned: the first two-thirds of the movie are slow (with a few intermittent points of interest). Our introduction to the Ullmans is one such point of interest but quickly passes, and much of Samantha’s time alone in the house is spent wandering around, bouncing between emotional unease and determined forbearance. She breaks a vase, she shuffles around looking for cleaning supplies. She hears a weird noise. She ignores it. It’s tempting to check out during these stretches of no action and near-silence . . . but don’t. If you commit to immersing yourself in THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, sinking in from head to toe, you won’t be disappointed when the climax finally delivers.
The most devoted of West’s followers have been known to utter words like “perfect in relation to THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, but it’s by no means a literally faultless film. All slowness aside—I don’t see this as a weakness in the larger context of the film—the plotting can be outright lazy. More than once, Samantha, going on little information, draws conveniently accurate conclusions, which is just irritating to watch. You don’t need to make every protagonist clueless, but Samantha shouldn’t be able to intuit all that she does based on so little. At times, Samantha is conveniently hyper-capable, as well. Basically, at some parts, it feels as though West, more invested in keeping the writing sparse than keeping it sensible, skips over the circumstances of discovery and escape, and leaves it to the viewer to wrestle with his/her willing extension of disbelief . . . especially when it comes to the film’s widely discussed conclusion, which truly makes little sense, given the context of what Samantha has been through. In order to enjoy the film, you must either ignore these absurdities or, like me, accept that no movie is purely excellent and be willing to love something very good in spite of its flaws.
Ti West’s reimagining of the babysitter, the “bad place,” and Satanic ritual is impressive, a delightful romp for thrill-seekers and acolytes of art horror alike. Commit to West’s journey, giving in to the controlled pace and accepting a sometimes-baffling plot, and you won’t regret it—even as poor Samantha deeply, desperately does.