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Satanic Sunday: ‘The House of the Devil’ a suspenseful brand of evil that stays with you

Jocelin Donahue in Ti West's "The House of the Devil"
Jocelin Donahue in Ti West's "The House of the Devil"
Jocelin Donahue in Ti West’s “The House of the Devil”

The House of the Devil
Written and directed by Ti West
USA, 2009

In Ti West’s The House of the Devil, an earnest college student tries to get rent together by taking on a last minute babysitting job. Samantha (Jocelin Donahue of The Burrowers and The End of Love) willfully ignores the inherent danger in going out to a remote house to provide care for complete strangers. Her clients are incredibly desperate for help but the promise of fast cash is far too enticing for the young woman. Samantha’s job provides a quiet, creeping evil that makes the audience hold its collective breath for a protracted time before the action kicks in. It’s effective in sustaining a lasting dread of the unknown and accomplishes what most movies associated with the Devil fail to do- convince us that followers of Satan and their ultimate goal are a genuine threat without edging into cheesy or overwrought territory that is well-worn.

Tom Noonan as Mr. Ulman
Tom Noonan as Mr. Ulman

From its telling title and an intertitle before the film that explicitly ruminates about the prevalent public anxiety of Satanic cults in the 1980s, we know that something hellish awaits Samantha. What form of misfortune is coming to her is up in the air for quite some time. There are signs that all is not well with this too-good-to-be-true deal but in particular, her first interaction with the pleading Mr. Ulman (Tom Noonan, prolific character actor from such films as Manhunter and What Happened Was…) who holds her hand just a little too long denotes that this bargain can’t possibly end in her favor. The insistence of her involvement and the securing of her services feels aptly serpentine and circuitous in execution. The looming, overly kind and stilted presence of Noonan is deeply unsettling. As a soft-spoken, tall gentleman who gingerly uses a cane- Noonan doesn’t outwardly look that dangerous. It’s his awkward pauses and the frantic determination in his voice to offer Samantha a suspiciously lucrative sum for one night’s work that so forcefully communicates that this situation is unstable at best.

House of the Devil Ti West

Gone is most of the inane chatter you hear in horror films. Aside from the goading and protestations of her friend (Greta Gerwig) who gives her a ride to the Ulman residence, there isn’t much to brush away in terms of the dialogue. Instead, extraneous exposition is replaced with little things going awry bit by bit that overwhelm Samantha’s senses as she acquaints herself with the house. Donahue’s exuberance as she silently dances around the house with her Walkman conveys her youthful naivety and a life force that lights up the grim decor of the Ulman’s barren house. West builds uneasy jitters up to outright terror with whimsical editing that plays with the analog technology and horror tropes of the 80s. He honors these tropes as much as he upends them by adding sincerity to the action instead of cheap scares. The House of the Devil announces its debt to 1980s’ exploitative horror and style but exercises unusual restraint in the ultimate implementation of the plans grinding from its opening act. The violence is so realistic and grisly that the intensity of it blurs what’s happening even if from the outset it seems quite blatant which direction the plot is going. With repeated viewings the movie retains its cringeworthy terror with a winking yet wry mimicry of the genre. With a proficient technical and psychological commitment to realizing prolonged fear over salacious temporary sensation, West ends up adding his own legacy into the mix of horror films he so obviously admires .

– Lane Scarberry




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