“During the 1980’s over 70% of American adults believed in the existence of abusive Satanic cults. Another 30% rationalized the lack of evidence due to government cover-ups. The following is based on true unexplained events.”
Here we go again; at least that’s what I was thinking as House Of The Devil started to unfold with the above introduction. I remember well the “Satanic Panic” that goes back to the early 1970’s. It was a somewhat natural extension of the Manson Family murders. While that might not have been Satanic related, it sparked the imaginations of a fearful country, and before long there were urban legends of human sacrifice and ritualistic slayings all over the country. While actual cases were impossible to track down, the tales persisted. Now House Of The Devil takes that Satan-worshipping genre and throws in the isolated babysitter, and before you know it you’d think you were back around 1980 when the slasher genre was evolving into one of Hollywood’s most successful “fear cycles”. What you get looks very much like a “dated” film from the sets to the decision to film in 16mm to get that grainy, dark atmosphere that most of us old enough to remember those films identify with the genre.
Samantha (Donahue) is a college girl who hates living in the dorms with her sex-crazed roommate. She decides to take a room from a kindly old landlady played very quickly by Dee Wallace, drop the Stone. Now all she has to do is come up with the first month’s rent so she can move in. That’s when she sees an advert for a babysitter. She calls and finds the guy is somewhat desperate and willing to pay top dollar to fill the job. Her friend Megan (Gerwig) is suspicious, having heard some horrible stories about babysitters being hurt by psychos. She insists on driving Samantha to the job and helping her check it out. Once there, Mr. Ulman (Noonan) admits that he lured her there under false pretenses. There are no children to watch. Instead he needs someone to be there for “Mother” (Noe) who is old and infirm. Samantha’s not having any of it until she jacks the pay up to $400 for the night. This guy is REALLY desperate. He leaves her pizza money and the number of a good local joint. Megan reluctantly leaves, and Samantha begins her vigil in the old creepy house. Of course, babysitting isn’t really the service the Ulman’s had in mind for the young attractive co-ed. She’s to be the sacrifice for their intimate Devil worshiping group in celebration of a rare complete lunar eclipse.
This one is all about the atmosphere. It never tries to be anything but. Filmed to look and feel like a 1970’s or 80’s early style slasher, you get quite an authentic experience out of this one. Tom Noonan is no stranger to creepy roles and looks menacing without saying a word. There isn’t really a ton of killings and gore here, but makeup artists Ozzy Alvarez and Danielle Noe, who doubles as the misshapen Mother, take a small budget to its limits. The house is a cross between Amityville and Collinswood. Not really the big Gothic mansion that you might expect, but large, isolated, and old enough to take you where this film wants you to go. For a long time very little happens in this movie, but you’re enjoying the surrounds enough that you don’t ever really mind. The two female leads don’t really bring the best acting chops to the table, but honestly, those weren’t the kind of “chops” you were exactly watching for anyway, where they?
Director and writer Ti West has a real passion for the subject, and that’s what comes through more than anything else. Each shot appears to be carefully thought out. He makes the most use of his “non-action”, allowing the low budget affair to work even when it’s not. So it’s easy to excuse bad acting and slow pacing when you’re just having fun. That’s really what it’s about here, just having some fun, and this one will allow you to have a devil of a time at it.
House Of The Devil is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1. This is a very dark film in almost every regard. The 16mm film means there will be plenty of grain and not the sharpest picture. In today’s high definition razor-sharp world, this would seem like a poor fit. But it’s all atmosphere, and it works just fine. Colors are heavy in browns and grays.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is very quiet. While much of that works for the overall ambiance of the piece, I did find it a bit too subdued. The notable exceptions here are the rather loud musical interludes and montages. Certainly it fits the whole 80’s range of the intended style, but I found that the least enjoyable aspect of the retro design. Dialog is not always easy to grab. It actually plays a little better in the 2.0 option.
There are 2 Audio Commentaries to be found here. Both tracks feature Ti West. In the first he’s joined by actress Donahue. Donahue whines a bit and offers a much more self- centered take on the film. The second and far more engaging commentary features West again, this time with a couple of crew members. These guys get into the atmosphere here and talk a lot about the influences and Satanic panic notions that led to making the film.
In The House Of The Devil: (13:34) Raw behind the scenes footage with no interaction from cast or crew members.
Behind The House Of The Devil: (4:41) Cast and crew offer very brief tidbits on their characters and the film.
3 Deleted Scenes
Every once in a while style over substance works. This is absolutely one such incident. It’s quite obvious what West was going for here, and with little money and a hard working crew that pulled a lot of double duties this film shows off the hard work and almost troupe mentality that this team employed to pull this movie off. The film pulls in a lot of urban legends and old wives’ tales to create its horror. “It’s all those horror stories that you read in the papers.”