The House of the Devil Review

It’s a tricky time to be making American Horror films right now. Watching the woeful ‘Horror tribute’ at the recent Academy Awards was a sobering reminder of how often this genre is badly treated and misunderstood by the industry that makes so much money out of it’s loyal fans. Release schedules are packed with endless remakes of popular horror classics, Platinum Dunes even has remakes of The Birds and Rosemary’s Baby in the pipeline, any interesting original properties result in multiple sequels that epitomise the saying ‘flogging a dead horse’. Following the Scream films even non-horror fans are very familiar with clichés and tropes of the genre and many horror films have relied on this, constantly winking at the audience as if this somehow validates lazy writing. Despite being so often underwhelmed I still plough through a lot of horror new releases, many of which are instantly forgettable, but every now and then a film stands out. I am very happy to report that The House of the Devil is such a film.

The House of the Devil is written, directed and edited by Ti West and stars Jocelin Donahue in the lead role as Samantha (pictured above). The film is set in the early eighties and unlike most period pieces it is not just set in the period but it is made as if it were made and released in that period. The minute the film opens this is instantly obvious in the opening credits sequence which looks like vintage credits from late seventies, early eighties exploitation. The film is shot on 16mm with muted dull colours and heavy grain and there are slow tracking shots, zooms and freeze frames. This attention to period filmmaking as well as the period setting makes the film seem like a lost horror film rather than a new release. What could have been an overly calculated gimmick though is handled very well. At no point in the film does the eighties setting and style feel overdone, Ti West has created a love letter to a crucial period in American horror cinema.

The main protagonist in The House of the Devil is Samantha, a college sophmore, who sick of her messy room-mate, finds a house to move into and needs to get $300 fast to pay for her first month’s rent. After responding to an advert, “Baby $itter Wanted”, posted at her college she is driven out to the home of a couple by her best friend Megan, played by Greta Gerwig. Here she meets Mr and Mrs Ulman, played with suitable creepiness by Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov. Mr Ulman informs her that the job is not quite what she expected but as she really needs the money she decides to stay anyway. Megan, who unsuccessfully tries to talk her out of, drives off promising to come back and pick her up. The next part of the film sees Samantha explore the house, dance around to The Fixx on her Sony Walkman and get a little freaked out by her spooky surroundings. Samantha in the house with little happening accounts for a large percentage of the film’s running time and has led to some criticism but I found these scenes effectively creepy and created a wonderful atmosphere of tension. This tension builds until the climax which suddenly shifts the pace and we see Samantha in serious peril. It is this slow burning pace that builds to a thrilling climax that I found worked so well but if you are expecting a fun ninety minutes of action packed horror this film will not deliver.

Central to these long periods of suspense working so well is the score by Jeff Grace, which has hints of both Goblin and John Carpenter, and the strong performance by Jocelin Donahue as Samantha. Jocelin  plays Samantha brilliantly, the character is sweet and genuine but also motivated and intelligent. In short, she is the perfect ‘Final Girl’, and what Jocelin brings to this role is exceptional.

Ti West is probably most well known for his recent sequel to the Eli Roth directed Cabin Fever, Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever. Although Ti West was apparently happy with the filming he was not involved in the final edit and feels it does not reflect the film he was trying to make. Cabin Fever 2 is pretty bad but there are elements of the film I like and I think these can be attributed to Ti West. He has said in interviews that key influences on the film were Todd Solondz and John Waters (two directors I love) and there are elements of these influences that can be seen in the film although it never gets close to being as good as the work of Solondz or Waters. With The House of the Devil West has said that key influences included Stanley Kubrick and Roman Polanski. Although Ti West doesn’t reach these heights with this film it is commendable that he is aiming for this kind of artistry rather than the attention given to the lowest common denominator that dominates so many recent horror films.

The House of the Devil is a slow paced and suspenseful horror film with a beautifully constructed eighties setting and style. It is released in the UK on DVD and Blu-Ray on the 15th March. The film was also released in America, as a tribute to the eighties style, on pan and scan VHS.

This review was originally posted at HeyUGuys.