satanic panic of the eighties - the days when a sinister cabal of devil-worshippers controlled the world through rock music and Dungeons & Dragons - seems almost quaint. Millions willing to believe obvious falsehoods that, if true, made the world a much worse place than it seems on the surface: ridiculous. Aren't you glad we've outgrown such silly superstitions?
While the panic originated in America's cloistered, hysteria-prone evangelical subculture, it spread to society at large - even across the pond: growing up in Germany in the 1990s, I remember our out-of-date textbooks referring to it. It produced cultural artifacts beyond Chick Tracts, and Hollywood played a big part in that. In the growing tide of retro-horror, it was only a question of time until someone revisited that more primitive age.
After this blog ran into a particularly dire example of abject failure in the realm of retro-horror, I was ready to dismiss the subgenre altogether. That would've been premature, though. 'If I find in horror one righteous among the directors', I thought to myself, 'I will reconsider all the genre for his sake.' And behold, Bryce Wilson arose as one crying in the wilderness, saying, 'Check out Ti West'.
Well, I'm darn glad I did. West's career hasn't been a smooth progression and isn't free of hackwork, but his best-loved film so far is nothing short of brilliant. The House of the Devil, made on a shoestring budget and never able to get more than a limited release, didn't exactly rake in the cash. Barely crossing the $100,000 mark domestically (fun fact: it made just £407 in Britain, being shown on exactly one screen), I'd be surprised if the film broke even. But it was critically acclaimed, and it really deserved to be.
The House of the Devil opens with text providing nonsensical tongue-in-cheek 'information' on the satanic panic and promising that '[t]he following is based on true unexplained events'. It's a lie (which, delightfully, they had to clarify in the final credits), but it's also a wonderful send-up of the old true story trope that originated, if I'm not mistaken, with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Ti West wastes no time establishing that we're watching a period piece set in the eighties.
As the film proper begins, sophomore college student Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) is closing the deal on a new place. She has trouble coming up with the money for the first month's rent, though, and decides to respond to a campus flyer advertising a position as a babysitter. After some complications, she eventually arranges to babysit the same night, and her friend Megan (Greta Gerwig) drives her out to her employer's spooky large house in the countryside. There, they meet mild-mannered, nervous Mr Ulman (Tom Noonan) and his wife (Mary Woronov).
Mr Ulman admits that the job isn't actually for a babysitter, but to watch over his elderly mother. Samantha is reluctant to stay, but they eventually settle on the exorbitant sum of $400. Megan leaves, as do the Ulmans, and Samantha is left in the house with precious little to do but order pizza and listen to her walkman. And from there, West is content to slowly ratchet up the tension, with precious little happening at all: Samantha wanders around the house, discovering clues as to their employers' weird nature, and becomes increasingly spooked.
It's not until twenty minutes from the end - 75 minutes into a 95-minute film - that our heroine finds herself in the hands of satanic baby killers at last. But even before that point the film is so goddamn terrifying that we don't much care that the details are satanic boilerplate (Buffy: 'It turns out everybody loves a good goat's tongue. Rock groups, covens and Greek cookbooks'). I'm not much of a scaredy-cat and watch a lot of horror films, and while I find many of them unsettling, it's been a while since a film has put me into the state of blind terror The House of the Devil manages just by little details and slow, slow tension-building. I was just about ready to give up the ghost even before the first Luciferian appears.
As Bryce notes, West achieves some of this suspense by breaking unwritten rules: there's one scene, for example, in which the camera suddenly wanders to the other side of a locked door Samantha can't open, to show us the terrors she is at this point totally unaware of. Another hugely important part of the film is Jeff Grace's excellent string-heavy score and the exceedingly authentic period music. If Machete pretends the grindhouse era never ended and Hatchet reminds us why it's a good thing it did, The House of the Devil is the first retro-exploitation film to really look, feel and sound like it might have been made in 1983.
Good casting has something to do with that: Donahue is beautiful in a decidedly old-fashioned way, reminding me of Olivia Hussey in Black Christmas. In a film that is so deliberate and low-key in building its tension, a lot rests on the actors, and Donahue acquits herself very well, although the standout performance is Noonan's, who is a mesmerisingly unusual horror villain. (His wife is much more conventional, which leaves West open to charges of misogyny - domineering woman dragging a weak husband to evil - that I'm not going to discuss here).
It looks great, too, shot by Eliot Rockett to resemble an early-eighties film as closely as possible without sacrificing beauty. After Bryce's review, though, the next thing that made me sit up and take notice was the atmospheric poster, which is great pastiche while not feeling old at all. It's gorgeous and spooky, and when you compare it to horror posters these days you do have to ask: why don't they make 'em like this anymore?