Going newer with today’s film and I will say that opinions for this film is an alienating one. People generally love it or hate it. I love The House of the Devil but I know it’s filled with flaws and director Ti West has not done anything other than this that I’ve enjoyed. I posted a rather scathing review about his latest film The Innkeepers on here a few months ago, and I reviewed his segment in V/H/S on another site as one of the worst of the film. Suffice it to say he’s not doing much to make me believe this film is a fluke. For me The House of the Devil is about the atmosphere which is probably why the payoff ends up being cliché and stupid. There’s also far too many questions and opened doors that go nowhere but what can I say, that first half really gets me.
Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) is a college student hoping to move into an apartment off-campus. Problem is she’s a bit short on the down payment necessary. She discovers an ad for a babysitter and, while the couple are a little kooky, Samantha needs the money. Throughout the night Samantha slowly starts to discover that things within the house aren’t what they seem.
I saw this about two years ago and it was one of the few films I watched in a dark room on DVD and found myself jumping to. I think the fact you were unaware of where the story was going and the slow pace truly puts you alongside Samantha in not understanding what’s going on. It’s this very issue that make the film weak upon subsequent viewings. You don’t jump and you notice huge gaps of the story are either underdeveloped or ignored entirely. I still find the film to be an entertaining and well-done horror movie combining Satanists with an old, dark house story but something is lost in the scare department.
I am planning to spoil this film, as regular readers should be aware by now, but for this film I’ll be good enough to warn you that I will be discussing this film in-depth. You’ve been warned. With that I will say that there are some huge flaws that you notice in watching this film. The movie introduces itself as an 80s throwback, relying on the myth that a certain percentage of people during the time period believed in Satanic cults. I remember my mom telling me stuff about this being true and I enjoy how the film mentions this statistic as it introduces the air of ambiguity that permeates the movie for the majority of its runtime. You see that opening text and you expect the film to either prove it or disprove it, and your led to believe that a lot of people were gullible during the 1980s. From there your never sure if Samantha is truly in danger or simply skittish about being in a place she’s unfamiliar with. Even the Ulman’s, the villains of the film, can be seen as either sinister or just out-of-place upon moving to a new town. Of course the film makes it explicitly clear at the end that these people are the aforementioned Satanists of the text but before that the film does a great job of letting your mind wander.
By that same token I think this film might connect with women stronger than men. I know babysitting is already a job rife with myths associated with it and throughout the film your connected to Samantha in one location for the brunt of the film. She does what everyone does when their alone in a new place such as wander around, play with people’s stuff and knock their vases over (or maybe that was just me). Throughout she’s not alarmed until strange noises happen and then she’s on full alert. Every window she’s in front of becomes a potential vantage point for a voyeur, every knock at the door or ring of the phone could spell danger. I love this most of all because fear of being alone, trapped, and unaware of one’s surroundings is understood by everyone. The 80s aesthetic the film sets up continues this trend as there’s no use of technology so as Samantha’s use of the phone becomes frantic it’s only a matter of time before that sole outlet of communication is taken away.
My main problem with The House of the Devil is what’s left unexplained. When Samantha and her best friend Megan (Greta Gerwig) sit down early on and eat pizza, Megan complains it tastes weird. Later on Samantha orders a pizza, that is discovered to be drugged, but that she also finds to be weird tasting. Are these two events related? Does this have anything to do with the water that Sam keeps drinking and that evokes a weird hissing noise? We’re not sure because it’s never explained. I know I mentioned the film’s ambiguous tone and I could be over thinking these things like Sam but at least give a brief explanation. The same can be said when Megan ends up in a cemetery to smoke after dropping Sam off. Don’t even get me started as to why this girl makes a pit stop at a cemetery but she does and ends up meeting Victor Ulman (A.J. Bowen), the Ulman’s son although Megan is unaware of this. Of course Megan is not long for this world but why is Victor in this cemetery? When Megan asks where he came from your asking that as well. Was he waiting for Samantha to stop there, having rejected the job, to kill her? Is that why he asks Megan if she’s the babysitter? And what if no one stopped there at that precise moments? The issue is that director Ti West sets up this grand conspiracy, at least you think he is, only to ignore it and make you believe it’s not there. The same thing happens with the emphasis placed on the lunar eclipse. Is it important, or is it a coincidence?
In spite of its flaws there’s a lot of creepiness in The House of the Devil. For starters you have Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov as the Ulmans. You should know who they are, if not by name then by the creepy characters they’ve played. Noonan is famous for being the original Francis Dolarhyde in Manhunter whereas Woronov has played a slew of creepy women (personally she’ll always be the creepy nurse in Night of the Comet). These two are nothing but trouble and if I was a 19-year-old girl and I was babysitting for these two, I’d be running down the street, saying a prayer, and preparing to die because that’s all you can expect. They’re by far the best part of the film because of how unsettling yet normal they are. Tom Noonan should be in everything although I’d be terrified to hear his voice on the phone! He plays Mr. Ulman so well. For starters when Samantha first meets him he’s completely apologetic and pleading with her to stay. It’s not the pleading of a man begging for a woman to stay to kill her, but a man desperate for a night out who can’t find anyone to stay at his house. He reveals to Sam that the babysitting gig is for his elderly mother and while he admits he’s a liar, his lies aren’t that far-fetched. His sincerity furthers the terror by the end, even as he’s calmly trying to talk to Samantha after the horrors she’s seen. Woronov is never short of frightening but she’s still ambiguous in her tone, coming off as aloof and sophisticated.
Jocelin Donahue looks like a brunette Kate Bosworth but she’s good in the role of Samantha. There’s not much character depth but she’s a sweet girl that you don’t want to see in peril. Of course she doesn’t hold a candle to Greta Gerwig who I’m still surprised to see in this film (this was the first movie I saw the lovely Ms. Gerwig in). Gerwig plays the voice of reason, Samantha’s best friend Megan. She’s sassy and spunky in contrast to Sam’s timid and sweet nature, they’re a perfect blend. Megan keeps things light until she hopes to convince Sam not to stay there, rightfully so. For all the reasons Sam comes up with to stay, Megan comes up with eight more for why she’s an idiot. She plays the audience for the remainder of the film and my personal favorite line has to be in response to Samantha saying the Ulman’s are wealthy and therefore they’re normal: “You think having money makes you normal?” Megan’s death is shocking, easily one of the most shocking I’ve seen because it’s graphic and comes out of nowhere and still makes me sad.
The film gets gory towards the end complete with a brutal eye gouging I always forget is there. The ending though is where the film loses me and I recommend you shut the film off before the final minute or two because it can ruin all the goodwill it sets up. Of course the Ulman’s are Satanists (you did expect them to be anything less considering our actors?) and it appears they’re trying to use Sam as a womb for the Antichrist. Samantha decides to end everything by killing herself and the film SHOULD BE OVER! Of course not because that would be a good idea! Nope, Samantha lives and the baby lives and your led to believe Hell on Earth is only nine months away! It’s a cop-out ending in the worst way because you see Samantha’s brains splatter with that gunshot, she should be dead! And why does the news announcer make a big deal of stating the eclipse was cut short? Does that play into the Antichrist or is Samantha’s baby the savior? See what I mean about West setting up some big conspiracy and never paying it off? Because the ending could go either way and is never explained. I hate the whole “mom and baby live but the baby is the devil” story. It’s been done to tears and it never works well short of Rosemary’s Baby.
I do recommend The House of the Devil but I understand why people hate it. I don’t think it holds up past the initial viewing and there’s a lot left unexplained with the expected payoff nowhere in sight. The acting is well-done and the way the film plays up the creepy old house is effective as well. There’s some scares here in my opinion!
Type of Horror: Satanic, Gory, Creepy Old House
Fright Meter: 5.5
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.