The Effective Creepiness of "The House of the Devil"
For movie fans, Halloween is a time to thrill ourselves with some classic horror flicks to get us in the mood for the season. While most modern horror films are filled with cheap scares, gory monsters and weak acting, it’s worth checking out a particular creepy film that will stay with you for days after watching. Filmmaker Ti West is slowly building himself as a respectful indie horror director whose trademark slow-build pacing of tension and chills leaves audiences shaking. West comes from school of filmmakers who not only watched horror films all their lives, but also studied them. With a wealth of horror film knowledge, West is able to keep filmgoers on edge with a sense of constant build-up that ultimately pays off in the end of his films.
In 2009, West directed and released the creepy yet exciting “The House of the Devil,” whereby a broke college student accepts a babysitting gig at an old remote house by dubious homeowners. In the opening sequence, the film informs you that by the 1980s, 70% of Americans believed in satanic cults and that the following is “based on true unexplained events.” The film results in unnerving pressure for both the film’s protagonist and the viewer.
Set in the 1980s, young, cash-strapped student Samantha Hughes (Jocelin Donahue) is hoping to move out of the dorms and into her own apartment off campus. The landlady (sci-fi & horror cult icon Dee Wallace in a cameo appearance) advertised an available space and secures Samantha a place as long as she can pay the first month’s rent within a week. While looking to earn some cash, Samantha spots a babysitting job ad posted on campus and calls the contact from a payphone and instantly receives a call back on the phone from Mr. Ulman (prolific character actor Tom Noonan). He offers her the job for that very night and tells her to meet him in front of the student affairs building. When he doesn’t show, she figures the quick job was too good to be true.
Mr. Ulman calls again at her dorm and leaves message. Still interested in the job, Samantha returns the call and he is more than willing to offer $100 for one night’s work due to the importance of securing a babysitter at the last minute. As night falls, her friend Megan (Greta Gerwig) drives her to the address in the backwoods of rural Connecticut. The Victorian-style home presents a sense of mystery while stylistically trapped in decade’s past. Upon meeting the particularly tall Mr. Ulman, he remarks that the house is the perfect spot for the night’s lunar eclipse. Later, he reveals that the babysitting job is not for a child but his elderly mother. Assuring Samantha there is no medical treatment required, he figured the only way to attract a sitter was through false advertising. Due of the importance of securing a babysitter for the night, Mr. Ulman is willing to pay $400 for the job. He emphasizes that his mother is independent enough that Samantha might not even see her over the course of the night. Megan remains skeptical and instantly senses weirdness regarding her Samantha's job and tries to talk her out of it. Samantha convinces her it will only be a few hours of work and lets her leave and will call her when she is ready to be picked up. As Megan drives off, she pulls over for a quick smoke but is spooked by an approaching stranger, whose true motive would later be revealed.
Back at the house, Mr. Ulman pays half the fee upfront along with the number he and his wife Mrs. Ulman (Mary Woronov) can be reached at as well as a number of a pizza place for dinner. After ordering pizza over the phone, Samantha quietly walks through the house, inspecting each room’s old-time oddities. She passes the time listening to her Walkman and plays pool. She comes across a family portrait of an entirely different family and begins questioning the intent of her employer. Once the pizza is delivered, she throws out the cash and picks up the pizza, not wanting to deal with the deliveryman upon becoming suspicious of the situation she put herself in. At this point, you don’t know if the house is haunted with ghosts or if a deranged monster is lurking around the corner. Is she secretly being spied on or will she come across a terrifying discovery? The film is a voyeuristic depiction of this young college student whose only objective is to earn money for an apartment. Unfortunately, she has become the target of a sinister plot by satanic cult members intent on ushering the Antichrist on Earth. What follows is a horrific night for Samantha and the true intentions of the Ulmans are revealed.
As stated previously, this is a slow-pacing film but the ultimate results pay off. We, as the viewer, are put into Samantha’s shoes and we slowly inspect the Ulman’s home and their intentions as Samantha does. The film is effectively scary without relying on CGI effects and excessive gore. Composer Jeff Grace provides the enticing film score that emphasizes the chilling tension over the course of the film. The film’s presentation shot in 16mm film and its cinematography pays homage to the films of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Thematically, the film is on par with the classic Satanic film “Rosemary’s Baby” but instead places itself in the remote New England woods, making both the protagonist and the viewer feel much more vulnerable. For horror movie fans tired of the cliched "found footage" genre, "The House of the Devil is an effective low-budgeted indie film that relies on tension and creepy atmosphere. Perfect for watching in the dark during the cold autumn nights, this film is a fresh take using old school techniques.