It’s a rare and beautiful thing to find a film that so well incapsulates a bygone horror genre and does so without being heavy-handed in any way (sorry, that’s the end of my self-indulgent prose). If you watched this movie and didn’t know it was made in 2009, you would really think it was 30 years old. And I mean that in the best way possible. 1980’s horror was a thing of beauty. We didn’t have CGI or multi-million dollar special effects to make horror movies pretty (pretty is probably not the right word, but you know what I mean). If you wanted to scare audiences, you had to use things like suspense, atmosphere, camera work and good storytelling to build up the feeling of horror in the mind of the viewer. You can dump on all all the corn syrup and red dye that you want and it won’t be worth anything unless you’ve developed the scare first.
The House of the Devil has all of these things (don’t worry, there are several buckets of of red corn syrup for good measure as well). It’s dark, it’s cerebral, it’s suspenseful, but it’s visceral at times too. You start to feel physically uneasy as the suspense builds throughout the first two thirds of the movie. And for most of that, there’s really nothing actually scary going on. Ti West has developed a truly and completely scary atmosphere and feeling without actually showing you anything scary for the first hour of the movie.
So as I said, this movie is a homage to the glory days of modern horror but it’s done so subtly and authentically that you don’t even think about it. It’s simultaneously rooted in that 80’s universe, following its rules and styles, and also more sophisticated and understated giving it a more of a modern feel at the same time.
The story goes like this. We’ve got a college girl (Samantha) who takes the world’s creepiest babysitting gig to pay rent for her new appartement. She does this against the wise advice of her ditzy, and stereotypically perfect 80’s friend. Samantha shows up to the house and from the jump, everything is just wrong. We meet this creepy old dude who set up the babysitting job over the phone. He acts really strange and on edge and a couple of times he almost looses his temper. There’s something unnerving, almost menacing about the way he talks and acts. Pretty soon we find out that this dude and his wife are not what they seem to be. Anyway, they leave and Samantha is by herself downstairs in this big, creepy, old house.
She hears strange noises and rustling coming from upstairs while her baby-sittee is supposed to be sleeping. She pokes around dark corners and closets of the house, all the time building tension and suspense. The longer we wait for something to happen the more intense and scary it gets. Without giving too much away, we soon find out that this creepy family has got something sinister in store for Samantha.
The first two-thirds of the movie are all build up and then the last half hour or so is just nonstop, fucked up, terror. Payoff. Big time. And just when you think it’s over, it gets worse and worse. Imagine sitting on a roller coaster and just click-click-clicking up the hill. Up and up and up. The hill gets to be just as scary as the drop. You know there’s going to be a big drop but you don’t know when. For lots of movies, the drop isn’t as fast or as steep as you hope it will be but this one really really gets it right.
A lot of this is thanks to the camera work and the score. For the build-up, the music is mostly deep, ominous tones that really compliment the building tension. Then at the climax and resulting chaos, the music picks up to a high, fast piercing pace that really goes so well with the intensity on the screen. It’s really just perfect. And the cinematography is great too. They use these long lingering shots even after the action is off the screen. It forces you to slow down and sort of reflect on what’s going on. These shots really help set the mood of suspense during the build-up and then make you stop and think during the climax.
- Is it scary: 9- Both psychologically and viscerally, this movie really piles it on. Really suspenseful and intense. Serious nightmare potential here.
- Originality: 6- It’s hard to give it big points because it was something of an homage or a tribute to classic horror, but it still managed to bring something novel to the table.
- Blood: 7- It started off slow with almost no blood for the first hour, but when it got messy, it got real messy. Like bring a poncho and galoshes.
- Believability: 8- By and large, this was really authentic and believable. Everything rang true for me except for a couple of issues, (one of which is a spoiler so I won’t mention it here). Also, I realize this movie was intended to be a tribute to the old horror movies, so they didn’t have much choice here, but SHE RAN UP THE GODDAMN STAIRS. There’s no way I can let you get a way with that. minus 1 point.
- Setting/Cinematography: 8- The setting and camera work played a huge role in this one. The atmosphere and the way it was captured was really well done and made the whole thing a lot scarier.
Final Score: 38/50