'House of the Devil,' Steeped In '80s-Gore Nostalgia

W: Jocelin Donahue in 'The House of the Devil'

hide captionRosemary's Baby Sitter: Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) agrees to baby-sit for a creepy couple on the night of a lunar eclipse — never mind that there's no baby in sight. In the best scare-flick tradition, it doesn't end well.

Magnet Releasing

The House of the Devil

  • Director: Ti West
  • Genre: Horror
  • Running Time: 95 minutes

Rated R

With: Jocelin Donahue, Greta Gerwig, Mary Woronov, Tom Noonan, AJ Bowen

Perverse as it may sound, Ti West's retro-horror film The House of the Devil looks back wistfully at the gory days of the 1980s, an era that brought us hollow-eyed, indomitable slashers like Michael and Jason and midnight skinny-dipping sessions in Lake Doom.

But it isn't the content of the post-Halloween slush pile that interests West so much as the texture; I imagine him drawing inspiration from stacks of ancient VHS tapes, all marked by a low-budget/high-grain aesthetic, their reds made blurrier and more vibrant with each pass through the VCR. West isn't out to lionize '80s sleaze any more than the film's kissing cousin, the cult comedy Wet Hot American Summer, could be said to champion Meatballs knock-offs. Both are steeped in nostalgia, yet their facsimiles are considerably better than the real thing.

From opening titles that mimic the "Based on a True Story" hook that once sold lurid trash like The Amityville Horror, The House of the Devil promises Satanic rituals and pentagrams aplenty, but its pace is more studied and patient than expected. West luxuriates in every last period detail: the feathered hair and skintight, high-waisted jeans, the superfluous zooms and freeze-frames, the brick-sized Walkmans. Then he luxuriates some more in the empty corridors and dormitories of a small college campus before shifting the action to the creaky, antiquated spaces of an unkempt Victorian in the woods outside town. For most of the way, the film is short on shocks and long on agonizing dread.

His heroine is a classic "last woman standing" of the Jamie Lee Curtis school — which is to say well-mannered (but not prudish), responsible, and more than little resilient. Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) needs money fast to move out of the dorms and into her own apartment, so she replies to a cryptic flier offering cash for baby-sitting services. And though she's a little freaked out by the deep, tremulous voice on the other end of the phone, Samantha nonetheless persuades her friend (mumblecore queen Greta Gerwig) to drive her out to the job.

What she encounters is far from reassuring: An impossibly tall, cane-wielding creep (Tom Noonan) informs her that the baby-sitting gig is not for a child but for the "able bodied" old woman sleeping upstairs. He and his wife (Mary Woronov) are astronomers, he explains none too convincingly, and they desperately need to get out for the lunar eclipse that night. He offers her an absurd $400 for the night, plus $20 for pizza. He repeats that last detail three times, as if "pizza" was an alien concept to him.

Jocelin Donahue in 'The House of the Devil' i i

hide captionDirector Ti West builds his best scares on the implicit dangers of what's behind closed doors, down darkened hallways and around corners.

Magnet Releasing
Jocelin Donahue in 'The House of the Devil'

Director Ti West builds his best scares on the implicit dangers of what's behind closed doors, down darkened hallways and around corners.

Magnet Releasing

All signs point to flee, yet Samantha negotiates the right price for what she clearly knows will be the scariest night of her life. West holds off on the inevitable bloodbath for as long as possible, indulging in the sweet torture of unopened doors, shadowy hallways and staircases, weird metallic pings and the teasing menace of whatever might lurk around the next corner. One brilliant sequence has Samantha bopping around the house as The Fixx's "One Thing Leads To Another" blares through her headphones, oblivious to the dangers that the audience feels so acutely.

When the shoe finally drops, The House Of The Devil picks up in visceral intensity, but it's almost a relief to witness Samantha fighting for her life rather than baiting some unknown force that's just beyond the frame. West makes the tangible scary and the intangible scarier, which the clumsily explicit horror films of the period rarely did. The film is a throwback of another kind: Had Val Lewton lived to update the Satanic goings-on of his 1943 classic The Seventh Victim, it might have looked a lot like this.

Scott Tobias is the film editor of The A.V. Club.

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