“The House of the Devil” is a great name for a movie. It hearkens back to the days of grindhouse horror, when a film’s title and its trailer told you basically everything you needed to know. Yet it’s different from those movies, too, in that it prefers slow-building tension over frequent bloodletting and mayhem. You have to wait for “The House of the Devil” to deliver on its promises — but when it does, holy crap. I know that isn’t a very scholarly analysis, but seriously. Holy crap.
The film is set in the early 1980s, apparently, with appropriately synthesized rock on the soundtrack and lots of freeze-frames in the opening credits. Our perky young heroine, Samantha (Jocelin Donahue), is a college student who’s sick of living in the dorms and is preparing to move into an apartment with her friend Megan (Greta Gerwig). Eager to earn some money to facilitate the move, Samantha responds to a flier posted on a campus bulletin board looking for a babysitter. Rather suspiciously (to me, anyway), the flier is blank except for a phone number and the words “BABYSITTER WANTED.”
The clients are the Ulmans — Mr. Ulman (Tom Noonan) is a tall, gentle-voiced man who uses a walking stick; his wife (Mary Woronov) is old-school sophisticated, a woman whose evening wear requires fur. Samantha learns when she arrives at the house — a huge old isolated place, I needn’t tell you — that the babysitting duties will be slightly different from the norm, but it’s not a deal-breaker. And the Ulmans are offering a lot of money.
There are a lot of red flags here, obviously, but part of the fun in films like this is in seeing the protagonist march down a path that we know ends in doom. I mean, it’s called “The House of the Devil,” and there’s only one house in the movie. Everyone except Samantha can see where this is going. The suspense is over what, exactly, will happen when it gets there.
The film was written, directed, and edited by 28-year-old Ti West, who made two features of his own before this one, along with a “Cabin Fever” sequel that Lionsgate might get around to releasing sooner or later. I haven’t seen his other work, but “The House of the Devil” is proof enough that he knows how to create tension and dread without resorting to cheap tricks, and to deliver the goods when the time is right.
He does move slowly, though; it’s not until the last 20 minutes or so that all hell breaks loose. West is on the record complaining that his producers trimmed a few minutes from the film, and while I see his point — removing a couple scenes from a really slow movie doesn’t actually make it any slower — I also feel like there’s more here than there needs to be. The entire opening sequence, in which Samantha finds an apartment to rent, could go (although it would deprive us of a cameo by horror veteran Dee Wallace-Stone). West is trying to balance the slow set-up with the nightmarish climax, and I guess it’s impossible to know exactly what the right mixture is. Either way, this is terrific work, cold and gripping and very devilish indeed.
B+ (1 hr., 33 min.; )