In the 1980s, college student Samantha Hughes takes a strange babysitting job that coincides with a full lunar eclipse. She slowly realizes her clients harbor a terrifying secret; they plan to use her in a Satanic ritual.
D: Ti West
C: Jocelin Donahue, Tom Noonan, Mary Woronov, Dee Wallace
Samantha (Donahue) doesn’t care for her college roommate. So much so that she applies and snags an affordable and too good to be true house right off of campus. Yet, even with the rent as low as it is, she still can’t afford it. Spotting a “babysitter wanted” sign on the college bulletin board, Samantha’s eyes light up as the promise of a cake-walk cash-in are on the horizon. Shrugging off some early warning signs, she wins the coveted position, and makes the trek out to the mansion or Mr. and Mrs. Ulman (Noonan and Woronov). A place the Addam’s Family would have been afraid to move into, just a hundred feet from the middle of nowhere.
The upside is that it’s a wonderful place to experience that total lunar eclipse thing that’s going to go on. Things go from weird to weirder as our girl is informed by the Mr. Ulman, gently, that there is in fact no baby in which to sit, but rather his dear old mum. Sam agrees, reluctantly, to babysit whoever the hell is in the house, as long as she’s paid handsomely. And she is. But it’s not lost money for the Ulman’s, no. Because what Sam doesn’t know is that tonight is Satanic ritual night. And she’s the guest of honor.
While I’ve certainly heard it before (and maybe even used it), the phrase “slow burn” has experienced a sort of outbreak in the past couple of months. I’m finding more and more movies being tagged as a “slow burn.” The House of the Devil was presented to me as a “slow burn.” And I’ll tell you folks, I’ll sign up on the spot for a “slow burn.” As long as something is going to happen on the other end. For a film that clocks in at around ninety-five minutes, it takes roughly seventy minutes for really anything of note to take place. And when that spark is lit, it sputters, rounding out what is ultimately a trip not worth taking.
Let’s say it has three acts to it. I’ll break it down. In the first act we set up that Sam has no money, her friend has the personality in the friendship, and the off campus pizza is bad. In act two we arrive at the house (the one from the title) where the old couple leave Samantha to wander around the place until they decide to come back (much later) and get Satanic. And wander she does. Here’s where the greater chunk of our movie is spent. The house (the one from the title) itself has the potential to be a character of it’s own. It’s big. Desolate. Has many rooms, none of which our main character has ever been in.
As an audience member you’re aware the film that can only get ugly (because it’s called The House of the Devil), and you’re aware of the curiosity of the human race, so you want to settle in for what will be an edge of your seat house exploration, dreading the opening of every door and the inevitable horror that will ensue once the party is started. Or something along those lines. Yet somehow director West and co. have managed to string together a series of creepy house door and sound checking sequences that feature not one iota of tension. A stretch of forty minutes or so that could be used as an exercise in a “watch how boring someone can be when left alone in the eighties.”
Which flows into another sore point… Our girl is boring. Hard to be pulling for someone who, if they stopped moving, we’d lose amongst the furniture. And if you’re going to give us one person in an empty and quiet house for forty minutes and change, they had better have some interesting behavior. Not here.
Act three is what the film has not been building up to, and that’s that Sam has just been killing time until she finds herself the major cog in a Satanic ritual. That’s the bad news. The good news is that the ritual is being performed by the sloppiest Satanic cult branch in the area, so all is not lost.
The finale is half-assed and unrealistic, even with the given circumstances.
What The House of the Devil does have going for it is that it aimed to be a feature that looks, feels, sounds, and smells like it was plucked from the eighties, which it does quite well. Well enough that it’s a major part of why the film has gotten the buzz it has.
Gorehounds looking for a fix will be treated to a nice head blast, and little else other than a stab here and a stab there.
Ultimately, The House of the Devil is a rather forgettable film, regardless of what era it hails from The idea was there on paper and just never comes close to meeting it’s potential on screen. And unfortunately, with not much going on, the “look and feel” of the film just comes off as gimmicky. And anti-pizza.
The House of the Devil (2009)