Coed needs cash. Coed meets stranger. Coed ignores all the tell-tale signs of a sketchy job offer and decides to spend a night at The House of the Devil anyway. Does indie director Ti West revive a long-gone genre, or does he beat retro homage to death?
Intro by Phil, with review dialogue from Jessica
It’s a setup as old as horror: A young, attractive, cash-strapped college student finds a handwritten “babysitter wanted” ad posted on campus. She calls the number and talks with a bizarre older man who, for whatever reason, absolutely needs her to help that very night. Oddly enough, it’s also the same night as a lunar eclipse, and this college town is THE place to watch, and there might be rumor of a Satanic cult lurking about, but the plucky coed just really needs the cash.
And that’s The House of the Devil in a nutshell. Writer-director Ti West knows the beats of a low-key horror film, and he’s not afraid to lull viewers into a sense of tired familiarity right off the bat with his lead, Sam (Jocelin Donahue), her wary best friend, Megan (Greta Gerwig), and, of course, the creepy old guy, known by surname only as Mr. Noonan (a bald Tom Noonan).
But West also knows expectations are made to be upended, especially in the horror genre. This flick was the young filmmaker’s second feature film after The Innkeepers, another slow-burning mood piece set in a supposedly haunted hotel on the final night of business. Both share quite a bit: young female leads, relatively small casts, ripping dialogue, impeccable pacing, an eerie primary setting, a fascination with the uncomfortable (and unseen) dangers lurking on the fringes of everyday life.
The House of the Devil takes West’s pet themes and runs them through a retro occult filter. It’s a confident and shameless love letter to ‘70s horror, with feathered hair, early Walkmans and bad vibes galore. But this was made in 2009, and after tasting indie success with The Innkeepers, West couldn’t get away with simply rehashing the same old story. Let’s see if he pulls it off.
Phil: My favorite scene in this film comes more than halfway in, when Sam dances through the kitchen right before shit hits the demonic fan. I recently rewatched it for the first time in at least two years (during the September blood moon, natch), and before hitting play, that sequence was about the only thing I remembered, along with all the abstract Satanism and one hell of a shocking death. I even forgot that the story hinged on a lunar eclipse. Either way, that three or four minutes of blissful, joyful, totally unbridled dancing is one of my favorite “things are A-OK” moments in a horror film, like playing strip Monopoly in Friday the 13th, or heading to any sort of frat party in any slasher, ever. It’s a short and euphoric glimpse at normal, everyday life before the murder and mayhem, and Sam pulls it off better than her Hollywood-approved peers. Do you like that tactic? And does it work here?
Jessica: I think it definitely works in this sense. The whole point of The House of the Devil, which I remembered from first viewing, and was emphasized on second viewing, was the whole slow build-up to the payoff. And the little dance scene does such a good job of cutting the tension. Because really, you can only have so much tension and build up before you either give the pay off or your audience abandons you. And I feel like there’s been so much up to that point, including the shocking payoff of Megan’s death, that this little scene helps cut the unbearable tension, giving the audience a break until they can catch their breaths for the next series of tense activities. It also serves to emphasize how actually NOT OK everything is, in comparison.
Phil: Along with Sam’s dancing, Megan’s shockingly abrupt death was the other thing I remembered from the first viewing, simply because it comes with almost no warning. Like, there are subtle signs — the camera lingers with her a bit too long after she leaves the devil house — but you don’t quite expect her to meet such a grisly, cold-hearted end. And then we never come back to her. There is no reappearance of a grotesque body in the final act, no reminder that a likeable character was killed. Megan is dead and gone, but she’s dead and gone in realistic terms. She doesn’t show up hanging from the rafters with blood and guts and whatever pouring out. And that makes sense: Why would a Satanic cult play by slasher conventions? They wouldn’t, and it’s because they have a larger purpose. This film isn’t about shock scares — it’s about slow and methodical tension, just like the ‘70s flicks it imitates.
Jessica: ACTUALLY (pushes glasses up nose nerdily) Megan’s body does make a reappearance, sans her face, when Sam is running away from the Satanic ritual. She runs into the kitchen and slips in all the blood and looks at a jean-clad body with a mass of blood plus a little blonde hair, screams “Megan” and continues to run away in the worst direction possible – upstairs.
Megan’s death does bring me to a point I wanted to bring up earlier, which is about what the filmmakers choose to show us, the audience. While a lot of the movie is shown from Sam’s perspective, what the filmmakers choose to show us and when they choose to show it are really essential to the film, I believe. The main example of this is Megan’s death. THey could have just had Megan leave the devil house and then show up as a body later, but they show us her brutal, sudden murder after she confirms that she’s “not the babysitter” in order to contrast the normalcy that Sam is trying to inject into her stay at the devil house. Any time Sam rings Megan, trying to get a hold of her, we know she’s already dead, which adds to our sense of dread for each of Sam’s following actions. We recognize the evil pizza boy. This then escalates when Sam discovers the bag of photos in the closet, showing the different family next to the car that she saw outside, and then ratcheting that up more when she goes upstairs and looks at a door, followed by the camera panning inside the door to show us the bodies of the house’s previous owners laid out in Satanic sacrifice upon a pentagram. If I recall, that’s right before her A-OK dance, so while she does the dance and still has fun, it rings false to the audience, and as soon as she breaks out of it, we’re right there with her realizing things are not right.
Phil: That’s right — even after a second viewing, I forgot that Megan makes a reappearance. It could be because of the purposeful pacing you mention. By the time Megan’s body shows up in bloody, annihilated fashion, I was so tied up in Sam’s situation that I hardly noticed. Ti West creates such a believable world that I have no problem wholly associating with the main character. I logically see what’s happening (thanks to the omniscient POV), but when it comes to the emotional happenings, I’m sucked into Sam’s worldview.
This all traces back to the opening sequences. Have you ever seen a horror movie that convinces you every dumb, life-threatening decision is actually the right one, given the circumstances? Take Sam’s babysitting gig: she simply needs the money. Sure, there is no baby, and sure, the “family” she meets is beyond weird, but does that stop her? Hell no — there’s $400 at stake, and she needs every last cent to get out of the dormitory hell she knows. Were you convinced?
Jessica: On first watch, I thought Sam was the dumbest person alive. But on second watch, I thought it was pretty convincing how she got beguiled into staying at the devil house. I actually have written down in my notes “Blonde one is smarter, more wary.” Because Megan definitely knows things are weird as fuck here, but she lets Sam convince her to leave her at the house and that everything will be ok. I thought Megan would have been a strong candidate for the “last girl” had this been that kind of movie, and had there been more people to kill off. But that almost made it better in a way– the character who was more savvy was just instantly killed off, with no warning. That’s how you know there’s no help for Sam.
Sam is definitely presented as this sort of naive innocent girl, which may have been what drew the devil worshippers to her in the first place, who knows, though she did kind of have to fight to get that gig in the first place, which, awkward.
I really like what you said about the world that the director creates. I thought the ‘70s flashback was awesome, from the title credits to the props and clothing and hairstyles of the actors. I think The House of the Devil is the perfect title for a ‘70s/’80s film, not so much a 2000’s film, and I really like the retro look of the whole thing. It really drew me into the story. It also goes in with the “choices” thing that I brought up earlier. I mean, the movie is called “The House of the Devil,” not “One Of Them Might Escape Who Knows,” so you know what you’re getting into, but you let the director lull you into this false sense of security and normalcy at the beginning just to see how he’s going to fuck with it throughout the film itself.
How do you think the retro look enhanced (or didn’t enhance) your viewing experience?
Phil: The retro was a huge plus, and I don’t even like most faux-retro films. It felt natural. The clothing wasn’t overdone, the hairstyles weren’t ridiculous, the dialogue wasn’t hamfisted and weird — it just was. I felt like these people and events were much deeper than the retro window dressings, and that’s why it succeeds where other nostalgia flicks fall flat. Character came first, atmosphere came second, and both fed off each other because the balance was on point.
All of this comes back to characterization for me. The characters were impeccably drawn, and even though she’s ridiculously trusting, I gave Sam the benefit of the doubt. She’s just too damn likeable. The story chooses to follow her very closely, and despite some weird, satanic happenings, every outcome traces back to one of her decisions. Look at Megan: she gets killed because she happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time for her friend’s sake. She’s not Sam so she’s dispensable, and so are the cultists. Almost every last one of them dies, but Sam, in the end, manages to survive. Why? What makes the sacrificial lamb so special?
To be honest, nothing does, other than the fact that she’s a likeable, believable, relatively innocent character caught up in some serious shit. She also happens to be Satan’s baby mama, and that’s a horror trope as old as time (or Rosemary’s Baby). How do you think The House of the Devil stacks up against other demonic childbirth films?
Jessica: This is definitely a great example of faux-retro gone incredibly right. I think some films who attempt it just think that they can throw up the window dressings, like you said, of random props and hairstyles, but make everything else like a modern movie, which just rings false. This one, down to the soundtrack, pacing and specific camera angles, felt just like a film that would show right before The Exorcist or Rosemary’s Baby. Another film that does this really well is It Follows, which was made in 2014. (PL: I’m gonna have to check that one out.)
I have to say that except for Rosemary’s Baby, I’m not all that familiar with demonic childbirth films because those freak me the hell out! Yeesh. But it would be sorta awesome to have a sequel that dealt with the fallout from this film. Or maybe The Omen could count as that, haha.
I’m gonna wrench this discussion back to my pet “choices” theme now. Throughout the film, what is your favorite reveal that shows things are not right behind the scenes? Mine is the Satanic sacrifice scene of the original family in the attic.
Phil: Lord, that attic scene is grisly. This film doesn’t have a ton of gore, but when it appears, it’s shocking because West uses gore so minimally. It’s a bit like the retro atmosphere that way — small, confident touches can go a long way.
That said, my favorite “things ain’t right” moment is the short exchange between Megan and the murderous pizza delivery guy. Here’s how it goes (and I’m paraphrasing):
Pizza guy: “So you’re not the babysitter?”
Megan: “No, I just dropped her off.”
Pizza guy: “Oh.”
And he shoots Megan in the head, splattering an obscene amount of blood and brains across the windshield. The pacing is perfect, the climax is shocking and the dread is palpable for just about everyone except Megan.
Not only does that scene tell you something completely, utterly fucked up is bubbling right beneath the surface — it also tells you a little something about the devil worshippers. These folks will stop at nothing to make sure Sam gives birth to lil’ baby Satan. That brand of blind dedication rings true, and it’s yet another pitch-perfect bit of characterization. The cult members don’t dance in blood and howl at lunar eclipse like crazed witches, a la The Lords of Salem. No, they’re otherwise normal, low-key people with a thing for the Antichrist, and they’ll stop at no lengths to make sure he arrives. To me, that’s more frightening than theatrical psychos.
Jessica: Another great thing about this film is that it does the “show don’t tell” aspect so well. Except for a handful of well-placed radio and TV announcements about the lunar eclipse, and the little text at the beginning, there were no explanations of anything. Sam didn’t find a “Satanists Meet-up” flyer in the house, the cult members didn’t announce their grand plans or anything. It was all left up to the viewer, and we made the connections just fine. Better, in fact, because the sinking dread was allowed to slowly grow and overwhelm you to the point of realization, instead of being hit in the face with the “this is scary!” hammer.
Phil: Those hammers don’t just hurt — they’re also fucking tiresome. The House of the Devil is the short story of horror films, where character and mood and dialogue all take precedence over bombastic bullshit. It fits the ‘70s mold, and not only because Megan’s hair is on par with everyone in Grease. Everything from that era was naturalistic as hell (just ask Jessica about the sax solo in the original Mad Max…)(JS: Which one?!?)
Anyway, when I was researching other demonic childbirth films — weirdly enough, I haven’t seen too many, and I wanted a little compare/contrast — I found that the majority were made in the ‘70s and revolved around Satanic cults who (surprise!) targeted young, fertile, naive women. As far as I can tell from trailers and online recaps, they followed a pretty standard mold: introduce the female, introduce the cult, bring them together somehow (usually in a remote home) and let all hell break loose, sometimes literally.
In other words, Satanic cults were the masked slashers of the ‘70s, and this is Ti West’s loving homage to a long-dormant subgenre. I’m down for more.