It’s the 3rd of October and we have another review in our KO-ween 31 Days of Halloween feature. Today we are going back to 2009, again, to check out Ti West’s throwback 80s style horror The House of the Devil. We have also reviewed another Ti West directorial effort in the form of V/H/S which he directed a segment for so feel free to check that out.
We are reviewing a horror movie a day for the entirety of October 2022 leading up to Halloween. These reviews will be shorter and more straight to the point than my standard format. We will feature a range of movies from classics to a few indie darlings. You can check out the entire KO-Ween feature by clicking right here.
The House of the Devil follows Samantha, played by Jocelin Donahue, and her attempts to earn $300 to pay for her new apartment. Samantha has had enough of living on campus with her slob of a roommate so rents her own place. Naturally, she needs rent in advance and it just so happens that a local couple, Mr and Mrs Ulman played by Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov, need a babysitter. There is an eclipse that night and the couple have an event planned around it. The job is paying $100 and Samantha needs the money.
Arriving with her friend at the large, slightly creepy, house. Samantha is informed by Mr Ulman that her friend can’t stay and there is, actually, no child after all. The couple need Samantha to “babysit” their mother. Apparently the mother is completely capable and very private. All Samantha has to do is watch the house until midnight.
Feeling perturbed and incapable of looking after an older person, Samantha declines the offer. Mr Ulman informs Samantha that he is desperate and will happily pay her $300 just for a few hours work. Samantha, in serious need of money, agrees. She tells her friend to come back for her at midnight and settles down in the house. It isn’t long before Samantha begins hearing unusual noises. Spooked out, she explores the house. It becomes obvious, pretty quickly, that everything may not be what it seems with the Ulman family.
The House of the Devil is writer and director Ti West’s love letter to the 70s and 80s horror genre. Filmed on 16mm film to give it that fresh out of the video rental shop look. The House of the Devil is a real nod to everything that made that generation of horror so great.
And when I say nod, I feel like I am understating things a little. The House of the Devil has it all. Cheesy 80s music? Check! A grainy veneer to everything? Check! Unusual camera angles and fast zooms? Definitely! A satanic-panic based plot with an action packed ending? Yep! The House of the Devil is almost bordering on parody for how keenly it follows the 80s horror format.
It is worth pointing out that this movie preceded the 80s lovefest that we are currently in (Stranger Things, Super Dark Times et al) by a good decade. Compared to that current crop of 80s style productions, The House of the Devil feels more raw and far more committed to it’s retro trappings.
It’s really not just an aesthetic or a setting, either. The House of the Devil might as well have been filmed in the 80s. The camera cuts are taken straight from Halloween, Black Christmas, and Friday the 13th. The pacing is deliberately slow. There is a purposeful cheesiness to everything. It’s less of a nod to 80s horror and more of a tongue in the ear and a hand down the pants. From this aspect, it is very well done. But how does the movie itself hold up?
I don’t know whether this is an indictment of the movie but my partner and I have tried to watch The House of the Devil at least 4 times. For some reason, we always seem to get distracted half way through or fall asleep. We finally managed to scratch that itch recently and made it through the entire movie.
The House of the Devil is a very slow paced film. It takes half an hour or so for Samantha to actually arrive at the house and another half an hour or so before anything really happens. Once things get going, however, the race to the end is lightning fast. It is not hard to imagine that it will lose a few people half way through with it’s lack of story progression.
Speaking of which, story progression is something that really takes a back seat in The House of the Devil. The events of the movie are very self contained and take place over one day. There isn’t any real opportunity to learn anything about the characters. There is also no real potential to expand on prior events. It is almost something that would work better as a 15 minute short movie. Most of the first hour feels like story padding.
Acting is generally decent. Jocelin Donahue is fine as Samantha though there isn’t exactly much she is tasked with. Samantha is somewhat lacking in personality. There isn’t much of an opportunity to expand on any of the characters in The House of the Devil. To be honest, Samantha as a character seems a little all over the place. The responsible adult wanting to earn money to pay for her new apartment seems at odds with the childlike way she dances around the Ulman house, opening draws, wearing Mr Ulman’s glasses, and breaking things.
Samantha’s friend, played by Greta Gerwig, is typical horror movie comedy fodder. Her mumbling, slightly stoner-esque, manner is a bit cliched but then so is the entire movie. Mr and Mrs Ulman, played by Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov, are the would be stars of the show but the movie never really expands on them to any degree. The majority of the movie is spent following Samantha around like a fly on the wall. The 70s and 80s style of horror often put us in the shoes of the protagonist and had us stick close by them. The House of the Devil is no different.
If you enjoy the retro aesthetic then you are in for a treat. The grain covering everything in The House of the Devil is almost eye cutting. You can almost feel it like pebbledash on a wall. The use of 16mm film when making the movie was a great touch. It is certainly a step beyond what most filmmakers do when creating their love letters to the 80s.
Camera work is also spot on for the time period. We have lots of fast zooms, interesting camera placement, and a few scenes following the subject step for step. It is very reminiscent of the late 70s and early 80s and is sure to take fans of that era right back. As I said earlier, this is not just a nod to retro horror cinema. This is an attempt to make a movie in the exact same way.
The House of the Devil was really well reviewed upon release. I always suspected that this was, at least in part, due to the 80s aesthetic of the movie. Finally watching it all the way through, I am left with my suspicions somewhat confirmed. The House of the Devil is an okay movie but it does not live up to the rhetoric being uttered regarding it on release.
Sure, the 80s nostalgia is there in spades. It is done so well it could be a movie directly from that era. The truth is, however, if it was actually from that era, it would not receive the praise it received in 2009. Pacing is uneven, the scares are not there, Samantha is generic and difficult to care about, and the ending is entirely rushed. There just isn’t that much that stands out beyond the cool retro chic.
There are times where you are fairly invested in what is happening in the Ulman house. The tension is somewhat present for the first 20 minutes as you wait for something to happen. But after the third time of Samantha creeping upstairs you feel somewhat checked out. The ending literally explodes over the finish line with no fanfare after waiting nearly 80 minutes to get there.
Technically, The House of the Devil is a fantastic piece of work that is worth watching for the filmmaking methods employed. The 70s and 80s feel is captured in a way that no other modern horror has managed. You genuinely feel like you are watching something straight from that era.
At its best, The House of the Devil is a somewhat enjoyable movie and a nice throwback to a simpler time in horror. If you are expecting a ground breaking exceptional horror that perfectly recaptures the glory days of Halloween and Black Christmas, you may be disappointed.
Go into with an even mind expecting a cool looking retro style horror that blows a kiss to the 80s. Don't go into it expecting a movie that could hold up perfectly on its own merit. The story is weak and poorly fleshed out, pacing is glacial, and the ending is pretty bad as a whole. There are far better actual retro horror movies. But as a quick way to kill an hour or so, and a fun, mindless "switch your brain off" horror movie, it is absolutely fine.