The House of the Devil: A Review

It’s Wild-Card Wednesday.  Anything can happen, and the month is October.  That’s a recipe for fun.  I’ll be using Wild-Card Wednesdays to talk about scary movies and books throughout the month.  Today, let’s talk about The House of the Devil (2009).

The House of the Devil begins by claiming it is based on a true story.  The film is more likely based more on the “satanic panic” of the 1980s than it is any specific true story.  It is also possible that “based on a true story” was used to introduce this film as a period piece.

As a period piece, House of the Devil rocks the house.  It was filmed in 16mm for a grainy, retro look.  The close-ups are done with zoom-ins, rather than as tracking shots.   The opening credits run in yellow font accompanied by freeze-frames during the film’s first minutes.  The closing credits roll over a still image of the movie’s final shot.  The end effect is something that looks as though it was filmed thirty or more years ago.

Check out the retro yellow font

“Farrah hair” on the actresses, an extra large walk-man, a rotary dial phone, and period cars complete the picture.

The music is out of this world.  “One Thing Leads to Another” by The Fixx is featured as is “The Break-up Song” by Greg Kihn Band.  Even the score of the film, which was mostly composed by Jeff Grace, sounds like something from the era.  It’s like a trip back in time.

Director Ti West used some familiar faces from old school horror.  Dee Wallace (The Howling, Cujo) plays the landlady.  Tom Noonan (Wolfen, Manhunter, Tales from the Darkside TV Series) plays the bad guy who hires Samantha to babysit.  Mary Woronov (Death Race 2000, Silent Night Bloody Night, Night of the Comet) plays the bad guy’s wife.

In the opening shots, Samantha Hughes (played by Jocelin Donahue) rents an apartment she can’t afford.  The landlady (played by horror icon Dee Wallace) says twice that she always trusts her gut.  This turns out to be important.

Dee Wallace as the landlady who always trusts her gut

Samantha scrambles to earn some extra cash by answering an ad seeking a babysitter.  The film stays in period as Samantha uses a pay phone.  The retro feel is furthered by the disembodied, robotic voice of early 80s answering machines.  When Samantha does talk to her potential employer, he speaks in a creepy monotone reminiscent of the original 1979 When a Stranger Calls.

Samantha reason for putting herself in a bind is a good one.  She lives in a dorm room with the Roommate from Hell™.  In Samantha’s first visit to her dorm room, the door knob is covered by the cliché Do Not Disturb tube sock.  The soundtrack of loud sex filters into the hallway.  When Samantha is finally able to enter, she picks over a trash-strewn landscape with the snores of her roommate and her companion in the background.  It’s easy to understand why Samantha will do anything to get out of this situation.

Joceline Donahue as Samantha

The monotone-voiced guy seeking the babysitter stands Samantha up for their interview.  It looks as though her dreams are dashed.  Then, right in time for the first turning point, the guy calls back.  He tells Samantha that he needs her that evening.  Samantha, desperate by now, agrees.   She gets her friend Megan to drive her out to this gorgeous Victorian in the boondocks.  During the drive, they talk about the full lunar eclipse occurring that night.

The House of the Devil

They get to the house, and Tom Noonan answers the door.  This is where trusting your gut comes in.  Tom Noonan does everything to raise suspicion short of saying, “I am the bad guy.  If you stay here, horrific stuff is going to happen to you.”

  • He is evasive about his profession.
  • He admits the babysitting job is really eldercare and that he was dishonest to lure her out there.  He says she’ll be caring for his elderly mother.
  • He tells Samantha her friend can’t stay because he can’t pay them both, but ends up paying Samantha four times the original amount to get her to stay.
  • His interest in the lunar eclipse is more than passing.  It is downright creepy.

Tom Noonan as The Bad Guy

Despite Megan’s begging her to just leave Samantha insists on staying.  She needs the money too bad to decline the job.  And the fun begins.

Greta Gerwig as Megan

The film unfolds in typical old school 80s style.  Samantha gets more and more creeped out by the noises in the old house and the silence of the woman she was paid to care for.  She snoops and discovers a few more disturbing truths about the house’s occupants.

Mary Woronov as The Bad Guy’s Wife

Many reviewers thought the film was slow, but I found the building suspense reminiscent of films like Rosemary’s Baby, When a Stranger Calls, Burnt Offerings, and Race with the Devil.  The tension reaches a point that the anticipation feels unbearable.

Furthering this feeling is the fact that the audience is privy to information Samantha is not.

  • We know what really happened to Megan after she dropped Samantha off.
  • We know what’s really behind old Mrs. Ulman’s door.
  • We know who the pizza deliveryman really is.

This knowledge is stressful because we know Samantha should have listened to her gut.  Not doing so is going to cost her.  Big.

The only minus I give this great film is for the final twenty minutes.  The finale did not match the skillful building of suspense evidenced in the first seventy minutes.  The importance of the lunar eclipse, though never fully explained, does play into the finale.  The final twist was hair raising, so that did redeem it a little.

In all, The House of the Devil was worth watching to me.  It took me back to the horror movies I watched as a kid and reminded me why they scared me.  The acting is good. The music creates proper mood. Writers can take a lesson from the way Ti West creates suspense. As a Halloween movie, I give it four out of five stars.  If you have Netflix streaming, you can watch the movie for free like I did.

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22 thoughts on “The House of the Devil: A Review

  1. I’m not a horror flick fan. I don’t like gore! That said, I do enjoy suspense. I loved The Shining and all the Hitchcock films. I’m wondering where this movie falls in the blood & gore scale. It sounds like a great pick for people who enjoy scary movies.

    • On the blood and gore scale, I’d give it a 3 out of 10. The gore is not as constant as, say, something like Friday the 13th or Wrong Turn. It is, however, more present than in The Sixth Sense. What you do see is quick and shocking. I hope you decide to watch it. 😀

      Thanks for stopping by.

  2. I love suspense and occasional horror! The preview looks promising. I like the retro feel (very good explanation of the different tricks), so I’m going to check it out. Thanks!

    • Let me know what you think. I went in prepared to be disappointed, which might explain why I am so impressed. I’d heard the movie was slow and boring. What I found, however, was a trip back to the heyday of horror. Thanks for stopping by. 😀

  3. Oooh! This sounds PERFECT for Halloween week! Thanks, Catie – I can always count on you to point out those movies I’ve missed, lol!

    • Keep checking back, Christine. I’m going to be talking about more horror movies this month. Like you, I have my Halloween week favorites. LOL

      Thanks for stopping by.

  4. Now this sounds like a fun movie. I love the suspensful builds (Rosemary’s Baby is a long-time favorite). I’ll be finding this one to watch with my older daughter that is off to college next year and a registered babysitter. We’ll call it a training guide, of sorts *grins*.

    You always find the best stuff, Catie :)

    • Oh, that sounds like a fun Daddy/Daughter horror movie. If you’re doing a marathon, be sure to include the original When a Stranger Calls from 1979. I’ll never forget that last moment when the cops tell Carol Kane to vacate the premises.

      Thanks for stopping by. 😀

  5. This is right up my alley, Catie. One of my favorite movies was When A Stranger Calls and the suspense I see in watching the trailer! Wow! I am renting that one for sure.

    • Wasn’t When a Stranger Calls the scariest movie ever?! And nothing happens in it. Nevertheless, you get more and more scared just watching Carol Kane try to figure out what was going on. The first time I saw it, I literally ran out of the room when the officer told Carol Kane to get out of the house and why. 😀

  6. on ,
    PJ Sharon said:

    I don’t do horror, but I loved your post. You are so creative and I’m totally impressed at how much time and effort you put into researching your blog. Great job!

    • Hey, thanks for the kind words. I’m glad you enjoyed the post, even if you don’t like horror. This post was medium on the research scale. I enjoyed studying cinema in college, so I loved learning about how this was filmed and how that matched the techniques of the 80s. Thanks for stopping by. 😀

  7. Ooo, this sounds GREAT! Why haven’t I heard about this? This is my kind of movie! Do you have any idea if it’s available OnDemand or via Netflix?

    • You can watch it on Netflix streaming. I’ve not fooled with OnDemand, so I don’t know if it’s there or not. Let me know what you think, and thanks for stopping by. 😀

  8. I read the post and wondered why in the world I haven’t watched this one–that I can remember. (There are those nights of beer, gin and gorging on non-stop On Demand horror films. hah) Then I got to the photos and recognized Tom Noonan, who has seriously creeped me out since he played the child-molesting murderer on The X-Files. The episode was “Paper Hearts” and I swear to you I have hated the man with unnatural intensity ever since. That’s probably why I passed, because if I see his name in the credits, it’s an automatic nope. I know, I know, I should really get some therapy for hating an actor because he played a role so well. But there’s such a thing as TOO good, right? Oh yeah, and then there was Mary. Mary from Eating Raoul. Maybe some day I’ll get past these two and watch it, hah!

    • I’m laughing at your aversion to Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov. I’ve got my own deal-breakers, so I understand. I can’t think of any actor deal-breakers right now. However, I can do a food one: mayonnaise on meat sandwiches. I can stomach the stuff on tuna or pimento cheese, but not on meat. Once I’ve seen it, my appetite is gone. So yeah, I get where you’re coming from. 😀

      Thanks for stopping by.

  9. I can’t believe I haven’t seen this one! I’ll definitely have to watch it. I love horror movies. Especially the older ones with all the suspense and scary stuff without all the gore. I don’t know why people think the site of blood and gore is scary. It’s just disgusting. The long build up of suspense is the best way to get a good scare. When a Stranger Calls is one of my all time favorites. Thanks for the recommendation!

    • Oh, I hope you check it out. I went in totally expecting to be less than impressed, but I loved it. I don’t get why people think blood and gore is scary, either. It’s gross. It’s sometimes interesting. It’s never scary. Maybe they imagine themselves all cut up?

      Thanks for stopping by. 😀

  10. I’m now on a mission to find this film. Can’t wait to watch it. Hoping this Halloween I get to stay up late just watching scary movies.

    Might you be posting on Play Misty for Me? Maybe more suspense than horror, but creepy nonetheless. Seems like one you’d like if you haven’t seen it, but if I were a betting woman, odds are you have. :)

    • Jess, if you have Netflix streaming, it’s there. If not, iTunes has it for rent. Amazon probably does, too. I wish you lived close. I always try to stay up and watch movies on Halloween. My husband tolerates this practice but does not relish it like I do. We could have fun together.

      I hadn’t planned on doing Play Misty for Me, but I might now that you’ve mentioned it. It is a good movie. I haven’t seen Play Misty for Me since I moved out of my parents house…twenty years ago. I probably need to watch it again this Halloween. I also sort of want to watch Race with the Devil this Halloween. That is one of my all time favorites.

      Thanks for stopping by. 😀

  11. It looks really fun and creepy! I haven’t watch any good ones lately, but I’m going to have to. It’s required in October.

    • You’re right. A few good scary movies is required October viewing. Let me know what movies you end up watching. Thanks for stopping by. 😀