In the late ’80s, when I was a film-crazy teenager with a freshly laminated driver’s license in Marietta, Georgia, much of my idle time was spent trolling through the horror and “miscellaneous” aisles at the local Blockbuster, looking for the sort of movies my parents wouldn’t want me to watch. (And some classics, too: I was the weirdo checking out His Girl Friday and Orgy Of The Dead.) Needless to say, I’ve seen my share of Halloween, Friday The 13th, and A Nightmare On Elm Street sequels and knock-offs; the creative slaughter of countless horny babysitters, kids in the woods, and prom-night attendees; colorfully titled Linnea Quigley vehicles and Troma cheapies; and the ritual bloodletting of Lucifer’s hooded minions. Rows and rows of clamshell boxes beckoned, each promising the mindless sensation of mechanical shocks, mild T&A, and the pinkish-red gore of poor ’80s print stock transferred to degraded VHS.
Much has been written, properly, about the nostalgia that Ti West’s The House Of The Devil bestows on this inglorious era in horror cinema, and the film’s advertising campaign has done nothing to discourage it. (The recent press package for the DVD/Blu-ray included goodies like ’80s candies and promotional pins, plus a VHS copy in a clamshell case.) But much like Quentin Tarantino, who’s spent much of his career turning trash into treasure, West evokes ’80s horror while making a movie that’s infinitely more skillful than the ones he’s referencing. And that’s what nostalgia, at its best, can accomplish: It makes our memories sweeter and more perfect than our actual experiences at the time. Because as much as people like myself—and I’m sure West, too—like to reminiscence about our formative slasher-movie days, the reality was hours of precious time squandered on artless, exploitative, retrograde garbage. The House Of The Devil gives at least 96 of those minutes back, with interest.
Though steeped in ’80s signifiers—the feathered haircuts; the tight, above-the-waist faded jeans; a Walkman the size of a Harry Potter paperback—The House Of The Devil goes well beyond merely imitating the look of the period. Other details, minor and major, reveal how far West has gone to recreate the era while improving and commenting on it, from cute touches like title graphics and taglines (“Talk on the phone. Finish your homework. Watch TV. DIE!”) to a smart take on the “last woman standing” conventions of the day. And not incidentally, the film is flat-out terrifying, an exercise in slow-burning atmosphere and tension that led yours truly to stop the screener three different times to catch my breath—breaking a record previously held by David Cronenberg’s The Brood. Nostalgia for its own sake means nothing if a movie can’t get the job done.
Opening with some hilarious white-on-black gobbledygook about Satanic cults in the ’80s—“over 70% of American adults believed in [their] existence,” “another 30% rationalized the lack of evidence due to government cover-ups”—and being based on “true unexplained events,” The House Of The Devil zooms in on Samantha (Jocelin Donahue), our intrepid good-girl heroine. (And “zoom” is the right word, too. One of the dated tropes of ’70s cinema, carried into the next decade, was to zoom in rather than dolly in, and West uses it at every opportunity.) Saddled with a college roommate who leaves their place a mess and shags her boyfriend at all hours, Samantha has $84 in her bank account and needs at least $300 to make rent on a new place. So when she sees a flyer reading “BABY $ITTER NEEDED” on a campus bulletin board, her interest is piqued: The dollar sign is right there in the posting!
After a creepy back-and-forth with her potential employer over the phone, Samantha recruits her friend Megan (Greta Gerwig, tagged as the wisecracking bad-girl type) to drive her out to an old Victorian house in the middle of nowhere. It’s dark outside and it’s about to get darker; their tiny town is considered the best possible vantage on the lunar eclipse that’s due at midnight. To recap: creepy caller, spooky Victorian house, lunar eclipse. This isn’t looking good—and that’s before Samantha and Megan meet Mr. Ulman, the house’s cane-wielding owner, played by the towering Tom Noonan. The best they can hope for based on his looks is a gawky dungeon-master type, but when Mr. Ulman gives his pitch, he seems much, much more diabolical:
One of the things I love about The House Of The Devil is that Samantha takes the job, even though every possible warning sign tells her to run the hell away. It’s akin to a housesitter walking into the Amityville manor, hearing that guttural “GET OUT!!!” belching from the foundations, and using it as leverage for a few extra bucks. The devil’s bargain Samantha chooses to accept: spend three or four of what will undoubtedly be the scariest hours of her life in exchange for a month’s rent and a start on the second. She’s primed to be frightened, and so are we, and that sense of overhanging dread carries the film through a middle section that’s light on incident. For a sweetly agonizing eternity, we wait… for the… other shoe… to drop.
It takes enormous confidence and daring for a horror filmmaker to rely on atmosphere to build a very long bridge between stretches of quiet menace and big shocks, especially at a time when audiences have been weaned on more regular jolts. West has his head in the ’80s, but his style is rooted in shadow-filled Val Lewton classics, haunted-house movies, and the framing tricks of something like Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, which had the camera peering slowly around doors and corners. Some IMDb users will tell you it’s “Boooooooooooring” (actual subject line, give or take a few o’s), but the truly great horror films engage the imagination as much as the more immediate senses, and West knows how to use simple shots of doorknobs and window panes (and the occasional spare string cue) to make the house alive with terrible suggestion. Here’s my favorite sequence of the film, where Samantha bops around the space while The Fixx’s “One Thing Leads To Another” blares through her headphones. It’s like water-skiing in Jaws:
Eventually, The House Of The Devil has to stop playing games and let fly with the pentagrams and ritual sacrifices, and West handles this catharsis with a blood-soaked freneticism that throws the first three-quarters of the movie into sharp relief. It’s a smart strategy, one of those gearshift moments when a movie cuts (or here, fades in and out of black, as Samantha loses and regains consciousness) and everything changes, just like that. Yet it’s also, perhaps inevitably, the one part of the film that seems disappointingly in step with the times, because it finally gives into the flash-frames and gory mayhem it studiously resisted for so long. Then again, West downshifts for a brilliant denouement that restores much of the sustained, unrelieved tension that he frittered away.
Though The House Of The Devil obviously posits itself as a throwback horror movie, it’s a shame that the simple values of patiently building atmosphere and playing on the fear of the unknown should ever be considered “retro.” At the same time, that’s the one thing the movie most emphatically doesn’t have in common with the era it’s replicating: The ’80s hosted some of the dumbest, schlockiest, most exploitative horror films of all time. West turns trash into treasure, re-imagining the VHS slushpile as something better and worth cherishing—it’s revisionist history, but it goes some distance in redeeming those of us who lived through it.
[Programming note: After two years of weekly columns, The New Cult Canon will publish every other week starting in March. On the plus side, this will free me up to contribute more to other features on the site. Better still, the column will alternate weeks with Noel Murray’s exciting new television feature, A Very Special Episode. Together, we hope to make it Must-See Thursday.]
Next week: Serenity
March 18: Glengarry Glen Ross
April 1: Hard-Boiled