The most criminally unsung genre moviemaker working today, writer-director Ti West has made three greatnot good, great
motion pictures over the course of just five years. All independently-financed, all original ideas, and all acclaimed by the few who have been fortunate to see them, the films should have long since gotten West noticed by Hollywood, but so far his only foray into the studio system has been the long-unreleased "Cabin Fever 2," allegedly a horrible experience that distributor Lionsgate stole from him in the editing room. West may have lost control over that unnecessary Eli Roth-free sequel, but his masterly fingerprints are unmistakable throughout the rest of his résumé, from 2005's spine-tingling "The Roost" to 2007's chilling minimalist sucker-punch "Trigger Man
." His latest impressive effort is no slouch, either. Far from some dumb spoof of the era, the potently ominous 1980s-set "The House of the Devil" actually looks and feels like a classic of that decade that has just now been discovered. Lively and frightful, deliciously slow-burning and yet all the more rattlingly effective because of its deliberateness, the film continues Ti West's understanding love of building mood and a shiver-inducing sense of dread over cheap thrills. If ever the director orchestrates a jump scareand he does, albeit sparinglyyou better believe he earns every single one of them.
College student Samantha Hughes (Jocelin Donahue) is excited at the prospect of moving out of the dorms and into her very own first apartment, but she still needs three hundred dollars in order to pay the first month's rent. Answering a "Babysitter Needed" flyer that she spots on the campus bulletin board, Samantha finds herself that very night at the secluded Victorian mansion of Mr. and Mrs. Ulman (Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov). Once there, she discovers that they do not have any children at all, instead wanting her to be there in case an emergency pops up with Mrs. Ulman's elderly mother upstairs. Samantha senses something isn't quite right with this couple, but she also isn't about to turn down four hundred dollars for just a few hours' work.
"The House of the Devil" entrancingly builds in foreboding, slowly but surely, throughout its 95-minute running time. It is a joy to see films that trust the intelligence and patience of their audience, as writer-director Ti West does, and even more pleasurable that genuine care has been brought to the multiple narrative and stylistic layers set up. As Samantha explores the house, watches television, orders pizza, tries to study, listens to music on her walkman, and altogether attempts to keep busy lest a case of the heebie-jeebies get the best of her, the viewer knows the other shoe is bound to eventually drop. The not knowing of when, and how, is part of the fun and suspense. While a beginning screen of text hints at what is to come by mentioning the 1980s hysteria that occurred over the threat of Satanic cults, it otherwise is left wide open as to where Samantha's overnight journey will lead her. Meanwhile, radio stations and news programs prattle on about the rare full lunar eclipse set to occur around midnight, adding further atmospheric texture to the proceedings.
If Ti West ever lulls his audience into feelings of the safe and mundane, it is but another tricky weapon in his arsenal. The insular worlds he creates for his characters are recognizable and authentic, but depicted or portrayed in a faintly askew fashion that suggests danger could be afoot around any corner. Certainly, his aesthetics add to one's edginess, normalcy colliding with the gothic. The opening credits dazzle with the nostalgia they elicit, freeze frames, camera zooms and the introduction of a gnarly synthesizer score by Jeff Grace almost as inspired as John Carpenter's in 1980's "The Fog
" all put to striking use. The cinematography by Eliot Rockett, making good with the wintry on-location shooting in Connecticut, is never less than sophisticated, evocative shots of barren tree branches casting shadows and unknown fingers opening a creaking cellar door standing out amidst plentiful inspiration. Also complementing the story's specific time and place are period-appropriate but not over-the-top production and costume designs and a terrific, well-used handful of '80s songs (The Fixx's "One Thing Leads to Another," The Greg Kihn Band's "The Break Up Song (They Don't Write 'Em)," and Thomas Dolby's "One of Our Submarines").
Jocelin Donahue (2009's "He's Just Not That Into You
") carries the movieshe's in every scene but oneand, for someone better known for modeling than acting up to this point, she is faultless. Donahue's Samantha is identifiable and sincere, a likable protagonist whose one weak moment of greedshe demands four hundred dollars from the deceptive Mr. Ulman after he comes clean and offers her threespells her potential doom. As the Ulmans, Tom Noonan (2008's "Synecdoche, New York
") and Mary Woronov (2005's "The Devil's Rejects
") play a middle-aged couple who might just be quirky, or might be seriously unhinged. By playing things close to the vest, Noonan and Woronov personify the nagging possibility of malicious intentfar scarier than if they were to be overtly playing whack-jobs. Making a splash just as she did in 2008's "Baghead
," Greta Gerwig gives her supporting part of Samantha's concerned friend Megan a depth of personality ranging from vivacious to fiercely loyal.
Ultimately, viewers are awarded for their efforts and attention spans with a blood- and violence-strewn climax that goes for the throat in more ways than one. It poses as a catharsis, to be sure, but where it ends up may be the least assured element, if only because writer-director Ti West never quite seems comfortable with his concluding moments. By then, however, the magic of a major talent undeterred by a limited budget and able to put to shame most major studio horror releases has already been spun. Classy even while getting down-and-dirty, unusually savvy about the importance of tension and character nuance over viscera and a soulless body count, "The House of the Devil" cogently suggests the sinister underbelly lurking in a world where complacency is just a temporary stop on the road to misfortune. And to think all Samantha wanted was an apartment and a little freedom.