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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.