This review contains spoilers!
In the 1980s, there was a mass movement as what was called ‘satanic panic’ across the United States. The McMartin case in Manhattan Beach, California, which was the longest criminal case in U.S. history, is one example of this hysteria. Director Ti West with his previous movie such as The Innkeepers displayed that he knows how to make a slow-burn horror film that only contains a certain amount of characters and settings. The simple premise of 2009’s House of the Devil feels as though it was lifted from a time capsule, in both its style and form of storytelling. There are a lot of hints that the audience sees that something isn’t right. Some exposition that includes brief hints where the watcher sees the trouble coming, but the principal character doesn’t because of their situation. House of the Devil bells and whistles that weigh the movie down. Instead, you get a nightmare-inducing, love-letter throwback to when the horror genre’s primary interest was just keeping you nervous.
Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) is a financially struggling college student who finds a house to rent and has a less than ideal roommate situation. She needs a month payment upfront and there is an off-kilter babysitter position on a college job posting board. With this, there are immediate red flags that pop up. The Ulmans’ are increasingly desperate in needing someone for that night, and they stand Samantha up on a potential meet up that day. Her friend Megan (Greta Gerwig) is initially supportive but also becomes increasingly skeptical once they go to the actual house. There also is an eclipse that is happening that same night. All of this comes together to provide an unsuspecting Samantha a night she will never forget.
Cinematographer Eliot Rockett provides a sense of uneasiness in how he shoots scenes. Often, the camera is focused tightly on a character’s face where they have conversations of emotional consequence, confusion, or panic. There are sudden zooms and manners in how characters are revealed in a menacing way, such as Mr. and Mrs. Ulman (Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov). It’s very reminiscent of slasher films in that 80s time period and even Alfred Hitchcock in how frames are sometimes over the shoulder or off-center as an appendage to the story.
West provides plot details in little morsels through conventional conversation early in the film that you don’t initially catch until it appears again. Samantha and Megan go to a pizza parlor, and Megan mentions that the pizza doesn’t taste as good that day. When Samantha talks to Mr. Ulman in private, she finds out troubling information that there is no child after all. They have a mother that just needs someone else in the house for a few hours, and the initial flyer was a lie. The movie creates this tension in that we know Samantha needs the money through this quick job, but the surrounding circumstances are not leading towards a good outcome.
West uses anticipatory devices to reveal the family’s actual intentions in the third act. The Ulmans’ house is large in scale and looks like it’s of another time from the outside. He uses hallways, sounds, and the score by Jeff Grace to have you on pins and needles. As Samantha explores the house, there are both things that she can’t explain and things that are only revealed to the audience. You create an emotional attachment to her because she’s a likable final girl with a relatable problem.
However, in ignoring warning signs and not trusting your gut for a quick buck, hellacious things occur. House of the Devil‘s conclusion is a bloody affair. By then, you feel that you’re ready for it – however, the revelations and manner that the deaths occur still shock you. It’s a testament to how West primes the audience from beginning to end. The movie will have you screaming for Samantha to escape and tense up as she goes deeper and deeper into the unnerving mystery of the Ulman household.