A college girl who desperately needs some income agrees to babysit in a giant creepy house, only to discover that she’s been enticed there for nefarious means.
Your reaction is this: Yawn. Seen it.
My response? That’s what’s so cool about Ti West’s The House of the Devil. It knows that YOU know all the “haunted house” clichés, trademarks, and stereotypes by now, so not only is your vast horror knowledge an aide here. It’s sort of a necessity.
It’s what we expect from horror films that Ti West loves to play with, and his latest (best) flick is a stripped-down, no-frills, effortlessly ’70s-ish occult thriller that’s in no real hurry to get to the mayhem. One anticipates numerous reviews that dismiss House of the Devil as “draggy, slow, and boring,” as if it takes a critic like Kael to see that Ti West is working under his usual m.o. (Definitely give his Trigger Man a spin if you want to get acclimated to West’s laconic yet icy approach.) To knock this movie for being slow is like knocking Airplane! for being silly. You might not dig the approach, but that doesn’t make it a flaw.
Much of the flick consists of the ill-fated Samantha (Jocelin Donahue, delivering a great ‘everygirl’ performance) as she walks, wanders, and ponders her way through a house that’s equal parts immense, eerie, and (eventually) awash in eeeevil. It would be a disservice to such a “plot-light” flick to divulge much more of a synopsis — but House of the Devil feels more like a character study than a plot-fueled horror show. (Only this time the central character is a house.) Littered across Samantha’s evening of anguish are weirdos that any genre fan will recognize: Tom Noonan (Manhunter), Mary Woronov (Night of the Comet), Greta Gerwig (Baghead), Dee Wallace (The Howling), and AJ Bowen (The Signal) each stop by and add a little strangeness to the affair, which gives the flick sort of a surreal After Hours vibe. (That’s a good thing.)
To his credit (especially in today’s horror world), West is not as interested in the shocks and the scares as he is in the building of tension. Whether it’s through an inordinately long sequence; a static shot of a big, empty room; an oddly askew camera angle or a dissonant tone on the musical score, the film indicates a lot more in the “artistry” department than does most of its contemporaries. And by that I mean this: This flick might be described as slow and a bit dry, sure, but it’s nice to see a director who positions his camera for creative reasons, and not just because he needed somewhere to stick it.
Once the scary bits start flowing in full, one is unconsciously grateful for all that mood-setting foreplay. It’s a risky approach (especially when dealing with the slam-bang-gore-happy horror fans of the world), but it works alarmingly well in House of the Devil. Also worthy of a little praise and pride are composer Jeff Grace, DP Eliot Rockett, and production designer Jade Healy for somehow going 30 years back in time and returning with a movie called House of the Devil.
Ti West seems intently focused on becoming an indie horror version of Terrence Malick. His films are slow, languid, deliberately-paced — but also smart, subtle, and disconcertingly cool to look at. They’re not for all tastes, nor are they ‘crowd-pleasing’ indie horror films, but who cares? This is a hard-working guy who makes strange, challenging, and surprisingly unique movies. If maniacal mayhem and non-stop slaughter are what you look for in a horror film (and we all do from time to time), then odds are you vey well may walk away non-dazzled by The House of the Devil. But for those who have fond memories of low-key ’70s devil chillers that focused on mood and atmosphere over sex and splatter, I’m betting this flick will go down quite smoothly.