The House of the Devil (2009)
Babysitting for Satan worshipers. Never a good call.
The House of the Devil is about a college girl who puts a down payment on her very first apartment and, since all college kids are poor as hell, has to come up with some way to get enough dough to meet the rent each month. After searching high and low, she responds to a last-minute want ad for a babysitter gig out in the middle of nowhere that coincidentally is looking to pay her quite handsomely to simply make sure that an old lady stays in her room for the night. So she shows up to the house, decides to overlook everything about the creepy establishment, the creepy employer, and the rare lunar eclipse going down that all point towards “GET THE EFF OUT,” and ultimately finds herself fighting for her life and giving zero shits about being $400 richer.
I wish I watched horror movies more often, but the sad truth of the matter is that there just aren’t a whole lot of horror movies out there that I actually want to see, aren’t cash cow sequels, or just carbon copies of everything we’ve already seen before and done better. So when folks started suggesting this movie to me, I was pretty skeptical about the hype considering that the whole haunted house thing is a dead horse that’s been beaten into a glue-like consistency. But I nevertheless forged ahead, bumped this sucker to the top of my Instant Queue and trusted that my dearest of friends, this awesome poster, and that kickass tagline wouldn’t steer me wrong.
So the best way to go about tackling this movie is to break it down from act to act since it morphs like gangbusters from one 30-minute stretch to the next and that’s mainly why it works and also what prevents it from greatness.
Appropriately starting in chronological order, the first act is all about setting the tone. If you’ve heard of the ’80s, if you know that it existed, then it won’t take much to realize that this is a total throwback to the glory days of horror when blisteringly horny and painfully stupid teens were just starting to get offed by Jason, Freddy, and all those goofy bastards who won’t stay dead and look like burn victims with facelifts. It’s the synthesizer-fueled soundtrack, it’s the leg warmers and skin-tight mom jeans, it’s the way every woman was apparently forced into a hair salon at gun point and given a perm, and it’s awesome. The downside is that it takes a while for stuff to actually start happening, but for a movie that’s all about the mood, it works.
And then there’s the second act which is why this movie fucking rocks. The funny thing is, it’s nothing more than this girl just walking around the damn house for half-an-hour as she bides her time by watching the news, dancing around with her cool new Walkman on, and checking out the digs from one room to the next. It might sound boring from the outset, but believe you me, I could hardly even breathe, I could barely even watch, and I don’t think I’ve ever squirmed my way deeper into the depths of my couch to just distance myself from the freakin’ TV. I mean, it’s called The House of the Devil, so you know some shit is up with this place before it even starts, and with that at the front of your mind the whole time, it’s all about waiting for that hammer to drop. And what makes it even better is that the girl is actually pretty smart and makes one logical decision after the next when she starts wising up to the fact that this job blows in ways she never could have imagined. Considering that this continues to be the Achilles’ heel of a disgusting amount of horror movies, writer/director Ti West earned himself a good ol’ pat on the back for giving his characters some brains for once.
And lastly is the third act where we realize front and center what the devil has to do with this house, because he totally has something to do with this house. Whereas the second act is all about the stuff you don’t see, the third act shows you everything and nose dives into satanic underworld that’s been pulling the strings behind closed doors. The bummer of the situation is that the second act is so outrageously good that it makes the third act seem weaker just because the unknown in so much scarier than anything you can show an audience, although that’s not to say that the third act sucks, it’s good in a different way that’s just a lot less subtle. There’s nothing all that surprising about the direction it goes in or how it’ll probably play out, but it’s just done right, and that’s a lot more than I can say for most horror movies.
The only other issue I can think of here is a gun that gets used at two critical moments in the movie and magically goes from being the handheld equivalent of a hydrogen bomb to your everyday, police-issue pea shooter. It’s not like it took away from the movie as a whole or anything, but it does directly play into how everything unfolds in the long run, and considering how crazy powerful it is the first time that trigger gets pulled, the impact it has on that second round might raise a couple eyebrows in retrospect.
But as far as the acting is concerned, the cast is pretty solid. Jocelin Donahue is good as our girl Samantha, Greta Gerwig is good as her best friend, and Tom Noonan is freakin’ great and perfectly sketchy as Samantha’s employer for the evening. Yeah, no real complaints on the acting front, but the real star of the show here is Ti West and how he somehow manages to make a haunted house feel new again by taking it back a few decades.
Anyway, if The House of the Devil had kept up the insano tension it absolutely nailed in the second act and had opted to reveal less than it did, it would have been an easy 9. Then again, this was something else. So simple and so unreal how effective it manages to be by getting rid of cheap scares and constantly cranking up the suspense by embracing the silence. Seriously, this may be the best horror movie I’ve seen since The Orphanage and makes me wonder what the hell West is doing directing Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever instead of breathing new life into some big name horror franchises that could desperately use it. And if you’ve seen The Orphanage and soiled yourself double-time like I did, you know I ain’t kiddin’.