The House of the Devil
available to stream with Shudder (free 7 day trail available) on Amazon
“During the the 1980s over 70% of American adults believed in the existence of abusive Satanic Cults…the following is based on true unexplained events”
So begins Ti West’s The House of the Devil – a 2009 horror film that throws it back to a decade when the Satan and his followers were apparently having a moment. With evil cults and lunar eclipses, a young woman needing money plus a babysitting gig in a creepy old mansion, the movie’s set-up is so familiar, so by the numbers, that you’ll swear you’ve seen it all before. And in a way you have – West doesn’t hide his admiration for the 70s and 80s slasher classics that built the genre. He takes the tapestry of fear and carnage within the heart of small-town America that they shone a spotlight on, and does his best to perfect it. How close he gets is proof that sometimes an imitation of a thing can be just as good as the original – when done with precision, love and buckets and buckets of blood.
To say The House of the Devil is a slow burn would be an insult to all the fingernails I chewed off just waiting for the other satanic shoe to drop. By saving the action for last, another movie might risk becoming boring or static, whereas this one proves that so much of our pleasure in being scared is in the buildup, the anticipation of what sadistic thing might or could happen. And so the 24 hours or so we spend with Samantha Hughes, our broke college student, before her bad luck begins, plays like a voyeuristic journey into a very ordinary life. West uses that ordinary quality to contrast against the things that don’t seem right and make them stand out that much more – a slice of pizza that tastes off, a car that shouldn’t be there. His attention to details and methodical timing assures the even small scares have big payoffs. If you’re someone who jumps off your couch with every on-screen fright, you’re gonna get a great workout from this.
Without a remarkable ending, the first three-quarters of this movie might just be written off as a film student’s exercise in copying the classics. But the evil that Samantha eventually encounters is as violent and terrifying as the movie needs it to be, in order to justify the anticipation that came before. In fact, I’d say it makes a good case against entries into the genre that are less smart, but soaked with gore from the scene one. Those tend to burn themselves out with every new slaughter trying to one-up the last. In The House of the Devil, waiting for the face of evil to show itself is what made a believer out of me.