Replicating the film style of another generation is no easy feat. Techniques and technology have adapted drastically over the last few decades, making it impossible for anyone but a true devotee to get the feel of a past era right. And watching The House of the Devil, it’s clear director Ti West really enjoys his 1970’s and 80’s horror films.
A college student, Samantha, is having trouble coming up with the money to pay for her first month’s rent on an apartment. Finding a flyer offering babysitting work, she agrees and gets a ride to the Ulman family’s home only to find they weren’t entirely truthful about the job. Instead of a child, they want Samantha to take care of an ailing parent while they’re out. At first put off by their deception, a massive bump in pay convinces her to stay in the remote mansion for the evening…
Right from the opening, it’s clear West knows what he’s doing. The film gives the audience a proper opening credit sequence, accompanied by a theme that fits the period perfectly. The characters’ hair styles. clothing, and musical tastes are also distinctly early 80’s with only minor inconsistencies slipping through.
The House of the Devil’s pacing–one of its greatest strengths–is also pure vintage tension. There are no gore scenes in the first five minutes to hook an ADD audience or dozens of jump scares sprinkled in with musical stingers. This is a slow burn, and it feels great to let the flames lick one’s feet before things really start to get nasty.
The acting is also well above par for a modern horror film. Jocelin Donahue infuses Sam with a genuinely sweet, girl-next-door quality. Her lovably brassy best friend, Megan, played by by Greta Gerwig, is just as charismatic and provides a good deal of humor and commonsense to the narrative. Perhaps the only slight misstep is the Ulmans (excepting A.J. Bowen who plays their adult son, Victor, who is quite good). They’re just a little too creepy from the start given the movie’s premise. That said, they work admirably when they finally drop the facade.
While The House of the Devil met with some critical acclaim, it had a pretty limited release. I’ve also noticed horror fans tend to be very much divided on it due to the slow build, which is more than a little disheartening to any fan of true suspense. If the stream of remakes and jump scare flicks are keeping you out of theaters, look The House of the Devil up. It should fit on your shelf somewhere between The Exorcist and Poltergeist.