2009 // USA // Ti West // June 1, 2011 // Netflix Instant
It's a tricky thing, executing a feature-length homage. Single-minded resolve to recreate the look and feel of a particular era and/or genre of filmmaking can result in an embalmed bauble that functions inadequately as a work of entertainment. The House of the Devil, Ti West's hat-tip to the cheap-but-chilling supernatural horror and slasher flicks of the 1970s and 80s, avoids this trap quite capably. The film succeeds first and foremost as a work of lo-fi atmospherics and astonishingly unhurried suspense. I didn't have a stopwatch or anything, but I'd guess that about a third of the film's 95-minute running time consists of little more than naïve coed Samantha (Jocelin Donahue, evoking a Black Christmas-era Margot Kidder) poking around a dark, creepy house. Said house is the abode of the equally creepy Mr. and Mrs. Ulman (Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov), who have conned / bribed the cash-strapped Samantha into "babysitting" dear old Granny for a few hours. She'll probably sleep through the night, and almost certainly won't emerge from her room. Did I mention it's the night of a total lunar eclipse?
The House of the Devil builds upon a grab-bag of vague urban legend and ghost story motifs: the terrorized babysitter, the local eccentrics in their sinister house, the menacing stranger out for a nocturnal stroll, and the unsuspecting woman lured to a terrible fate by a mysterious ad. Most prominently, the film plays upon the Satanic panic of the 1980s and the attendant fear that every town held a cabal of Lucifer-worshiping, Bible-desecrating, baby-eating Luciferians. (I wonder what proportion of the film's likely audience is old enough to even remember the era when Dungeons & Dragons was allegedly the diabolical gateway hobby of choice?) If the film's Big Reveal feels a tad underwhelming and goofy, it has less to do with the Black Sabbath trappings per se than with the contrast to the moody discipline that prevails elsewhere. West exhibits sharp affinity for eliciting scares from naught but dark spaces and weird sounds. The film works quite well on its own terms, and one is doubly thankful that the director approaches the retro style and setting with absolute sincerity. Who needs irony when you have a pretty girl in a dark, creepy house?