An amusing YouTube montage culls the horror films of the 2000s for all the clichés of conveniently inoperative cell phones: “No service!” “I can’t get a signal!” etc. The new cult film The House of the Devil avoids such contrivances by taking place in the mid-1980s and finding menace in a clunky rotary dial and a sinister pay phone on a college campus.
Writer/director Ti West winks at the era’s fashions, local news trends and even movie-credit styles, but The House of the Devil is deadly serious as a tribute to 1970s and ’80s lo-fi horror styles. Released on DVD Feb. 2, The House of the Devil makes its Atlanta theatrical debut Feb. 15-21 at Georgia State University’s Cinefest.
Like Sam Raimi’s grisly romp Drag Me to Hell, The House of the Devil introduces a heroine who cuts some ethical corners out of financial necessity. College sophomore Samantha (Jocelin Donahue), however, makes a more sympathetic protagonist than Alison Lohman’s grasping loan officer. She just wants to raise money to rent her own apartment and escape a roommate who spends all her time in bed either snoring or “socializing.” Samantha responds to a “Baby$itter Wanted” flier and jumps at a high-paying gig at a remote Victorian mansion for an eccentric couple, played by cult actors Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov.
West drops plenty of hints to put the audience on edge, including early titles about 1980s beliefs in satanism and the eagerly anticipated lunar eclipse that coincides with Samantha’s job. Noonan’s looming height and placid, almost apologetic delivery combine for a splendidly eerie performance, particularly in seemingly innocent lines such as, “I promise to make this as painless as possible for you.” Like last year’s $100 million hit Paranormal Activity, however, The House of the Devil painstakingly creates a mood of dread rather than resorting to cheap thrills. Plus, lack of CGI effects and more naturalistic lighting become an advantage, providing less flashy artifice to separate the audience from the spooky goings-on.
Anyone who’s ever been a baby sitter can relate to having the run of a strange house, and the alternating feelings of voyeurism and vulnerability. The House of the Devil delivers its share of gory moments, but West impresses more with his expert buildup of tension than with its release. We innately identify with Donahue, who could turn out to be the Jamie Lee Curtis of her generation, even when she’s jumping at shadows or wondering what lies behind the forbidden door of mystery.