Writer-director-editor Ti West gives The House of the Devil a rad VHS vibe. It’s set in the 1980s, and looks, feels and sounds as if it was made during that era (you have to love the Carpenteresque soundtrack).
Sporting feathered hair and a gargantuan personal tape player, Jocelin Donahue plays Samantha Hughes, a cash-strapped college student who takes a last-minute babysitting job in a remote old mansion. Upon arriving, she meets the creepily polite Mr. Ulman (Tom Noonan), who reveals that the job actually involves watching his reclusive, elderly mother.
After setting the table with such horror-movie ingredients, West proceeds to let us dangle. Nothing much happens for the majority of the film. Samantha snoops around the house, orders a pizza and in one oddball sequence dons her headphones and dances up and down the halls to “One Thing Leads to Another” by The Fixx. In the absence of any big scares, our imagination races around in baffled anticipation, filling the void with an excruciating sense of dread.
Eventually, we’re rewarded (if that’s the word for it). The sudden climax of The House of the Devil is a gore-drenched bonanza of Satanic delirium that seems to be making up for the relative calm that came before, if not spoofing the very idea of cinematic payoff. (“You want some action, take this!”) I’m not sure how much of this is intended by West – he’s in such control of each frame, I have to think this finale is also purposefully engineered – but it certainly makes for an exceedingly curious slasher flick, one that indulges in cliches even as it denies them.