Ti West has proved time and time again he's capable of not simply making a film that's a brilliant homage to classic, 1970's horror films, but he's capable of making such a film stand on its own and be a truly remarkable piece of work even if examined outside of the aforementioned context. West's The House of the Devil adheres to the principles that would continue to be upheld through his future with films, which would be emphasizing mounting dread and slowburn suspense rather than slambang action with no pay off or long-term resonance. He crafts The House of the Devil so delicately and intricately, making the house the most interesting character in the film (something one would've assumed mainstream horror would've discovered, what with all the haunted house films being made today), building suspense through the use of long, slow takes, and even incorporating some fun and lively 1970's tunes in for good measure.
The film revolves around Samantha Hughes (Jocelin Donahue), a college student desperately looking to make end's meet to pay for the expensive new apartment she just bought. She takes up a babysitting job for Mr. and Mrs. Ulman (Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov), a wealthy couple who live in a lavish home. While Ulman initially accepts her offer, he stands her up and goes with another sitter, leading him to deeply apologize and offering double her original salary to watch the house late one night while him and his wife go out. Samantha gets a ride from her best friend Megan (Greta Gerwig) to the home, where much to Samantha's surprise, Mr. Ulman reveals they have no children. He coerces her into staying by saying all she needs to do is make sure his ailing mother is attended to when she's in need and the house is kept in fine shape. Reluctantly, especially after being stood up once and misled the second time, she agrees following Ulman's increase in pay. Megan takes off, the Ulman's depart, and it's Samantha, Mr. Ulman's ailing mother, and the house to themselves.
West recognizes that despite The House of the Devil being a horror film, he doesn't always have to feel like he's setting something up in terms of momentary payoff nor does he ever feel like he has to constantly find ways to scare and play with the audience's emotions. For example, in one of the film's best scenes, Samantha throws her headphones on and cranks up her Walkman to full blast so she can dance around the Ulman's home blasting The Fixx's infectious "One Thing Leads to Another." Little scenarios like this, that don't really add anything to the plot or the suspense and show the characters being humans are exactly what Quentin Tarantino did so subversively in 1994 with Pulp Fiction, and Reservoir Dogs two years prior. It was also a tactic adapted by other filmmakers in the 1990's such as Kevin Smith, Richard Linklater, Spike Lee, and several others. It's dialog or situational antics that don't add anything to the storyline but provide characters with more personality and human characteristics than previously shown. It's a keen reminder to all that not everything a film does has to build to something, and West never overuses this element in a negative way or gives us boring material to watch unfold.
On top of that, Eliot Rockett's cinematography is superb here, as Rockett and West are essentially playing inside an enormous home. It's a layered home with knick-knacks, beautiful furniture, complex decoration, eye-catching decor, old-fashioned wallpaper, and complete with antiques galore. It would appear at times, as West directs his camera through the home, that he himself is getting lost in the beauty and the ominous atmosphere of it all. Samantha has enough free range as a character to simply walk around the home and explore every nook and cranny. The only thing West doesn't do, unfortunately, is confine the audience inside the house for the entirety of the film; unfortunately, he takes us out of the setting on a couple occasions (particularly to introduce us to the stranger that is AJ Bowen). However, West rebounds by delivering more suspenseful scenarios throughout The House of the Devil, and they're so well-crafted that the downtime is inherently unsettling as is because we're just waiting for West to surprise us with something else.
The House of the Devil concludes on a note that some may view as too broad and too familiar, but it's a conclusion that's warranted and, after seeing how West plays the horror game, especially in his later films, the excitement and the rush of events doesn't come as a big surprise. His horror films are so fleshed out and detailed with little intricacies, in addition to giving life to characters and certain situations, that it's as if each individual film he makes is a chapter in a terrific horror anthology book. Moreover, an especially rare horror anthology book that features one good story after another.
Starring: Jocelin Donahue, Tom Noonan, Mary Woronov, Greta Gerwig, Dee Wallace, and AJ Bowen. Directed by: Ti West.
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