A gray, ashen palette. Hypercaffeinated quick cutting. Low-rent digital effects. Some sort of nu-metal/mallcore soundtrack chugging away at eighteen quadrillion decibels. The subwoofer whacking away like a sledgehammer to punctuate the lazy jump scares that crop up like clockwork every eight minutes. It's not hard to wind up feeling disillusioned with all of the interchangeable horror flicks coming down the pike these days, but as you could probably guess from the title card up there, The House of the Devil veers off in a completely different direction.
The House of the Devil may not actually have been shot sometime around 1982, but it might as well have been. Writer/director/editor Ti West and his crew have recreated the era down to the most minute detail, from a Walkman the size of a brick to Farrah-feathered hair all the way to those red, waxy Enjoy Coke! fast food cups. Even the grainy photography, muted palette, and the slight optical jitter of the opening titles are pitch-perfect. West only loses out on complete authenticity in one way, and that's...well, that The House of the Devil is so much better than the bulk of the horror/suspense flicks I grew up with in the '80s.
There's not much of a plot to rattle off, even. Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) has stumbled her way into the perfect one-bedroom apartment just off-campus, and the realtor (Dee Wallace) was even nice enough to waive all of the deposits. All Sam has to do is cover her first month's rent, but she hasn't really thought all this through so much, and she only has a few days to line up the couple hundred bucks she needs to seal the deal. As luck would have it, she spots a flyer for a babysitting gig, and the soft-spoken guy on the other end of the line is desperate enough that he's willing to pony up twice his usual rate. Guess it's another astronomy nut; at least, no one else in this sleepy little college town will shut up about how they have one of the clearest views of this lunar eclipse the world over. Her pal Megan (Greta Gerwig) drops her off at an oversized house half-past the middle of nowhere, and Meg's a good enough friend to try to browbeat it into Samantha that if it seems to good to be true, it probably is. This is after Samantha has learned that it's not exactly a babysitting gig, but four hundred bucks to sit around and watch TV for a few hours is too much for her to pass up. So what if the couple that owns the place (Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov) are creepy and then some? They're out the door after a few minutes anyway. It's just Samantha in a might-as-well-be empty house, whiling away the next few hours with one of the most deliriously awesome dance montages ever and generally nosing around the place. The more she skulks around, though, the more she starts to clue in that something's not quite right until...well, you know the title, so it kind of goes without saying that all Hell breaks loose.
The House of the Devil very easily could've been a trainwreck. This is a movie, after all, that revolves around a pretty college girl wandering around a house for something like fifty minutes straight. The first genuine jolt doesn't happen until the 35 minute mark, and it's another half-hour until anything that looks like it might pass for horror crops up. The House of the Devil is so exceptionally well-crafted and perfectly cast that it's eerie and unnerving even without much of anything happening. Ti West states in one of his audio commentaries on this disc that it's more of a mystery than a traditional horror flick, and that's very much the approach the film takes. Of course there's going to be an attack by some sort of Satanic cult -- otherwise, why would there being a card at the outset that spouts off statistics about all that? -- but The House of the Devil is much more fascinated with the build-up than the inevitable release. Reinforced with an unnerving score and a
Greta Gerwig is terrific as the spunky best friend...the one with more common sense than her mousy pal. It's probably worth noting that Megan and Samantha do pass The Bechdel Test, having several conversations that don't revolve around one of 'em trying to get laid or moping over a guy. The House of the Devil's supporting cast also includes turns by three genre vets. Dee Wallace (Poltergeist; The Howling) is in and out before any pentagrams have a chance to pop up, and Mary Woronov (Chopping Mall; Night of the Comet) makes an immediate impression as the sapphic-leaning wife in that creepy, remote house. Tom Noonan (Wolfen; The Monster Squad) is unsettlingly soft-spoken as the towering Mr. Ulman, stealing every shot he's in without ever overplaying it. Up-and-comer A.J. Bowen also makes the most of a small part and delivers the single biggest jolt of the film.
Oh, and even though much of The House of the Devil is a deliberately slow burn -- one that builds on a classic approach to suspense as opposed to bludgeoning genre theatrics -- its final fifteen or twenty minutes are visceral and indescribably intense, exceeding anything I could've hoped to see from such an extended build-up. This is just a masterfully crafted film, horror or otherwise, on every level. It's a horror/suspense movie that could very easily be mistaken for something shot in 1982 yet never devolves into a cariacture. The House of the Devil is engrossing and unnerving despite its minimal dialogue and disinterest in overt scares. The cinematography, sound design, and especially the score are all outstanding. There's not a weak link or misstep anywhere along the line, really. Viewers weaned on Saw sequels and desaturated shakycam flicks might be bored with it, but for those of us who grew up with atmospheric, suspenseful horror like The Changeling -- a long-time favorite of mine and one of the touchstones pointed to in the extras -- The House of the Devil is essential viewing. Highly Recommended.
The House of the Devil sets out to recapture the look and feel of a low-budget horror/thriller from a few decades back, and it pulls all that off exceptionally well, down to the Roman numerals and slight jitter in the opening titles. Shot on gritty 16mm stock, its buzzing film grain and gloomy, distinctively vintage palette certainly help the movie look that much more authentic. The House of the Devil doesn't go off the deep end with it like Grindhouse did a few years back, but there are even a few scattered specks as a reminder that this was shot on film. As gritty and grainy as The House of the Devil is, the grain structure is still reasonably tight, and the AVC encode never buckles under the weight of it all. The image is also nicely detailed; if The House of the Devil had been lensed sometime around 1983, this Blu-ray disc would have to be some kind of world-class remastering job. I know the usual kneejerk reaction is to assume that a grainy, low-budget movie -- especially one modeling itself after even lower-budgeted flicks shot thirty years ago -- doesn't really stand to benefit much from high-def. Anyone who's been keeping up knows that's not true, though, and as long as you're not turned off by that retro-leaning aesthetic, The House of the Devil really does look terrific on Blu-ray.
The House of the Devil opens up the mattes slightly to reveal an aspect ratio of 1.78:1, and the film and its extras fit comfortably on a single-layer Blu-ray disc.
I definitely feel obligated to give a nod to the music scattered throughout the film. There are a handful of licensed songs that help sell the setting, sure, and the choices are more inspired than what I'm used to hearing on '80s period pieces. I'm nerdy enough that I even have an autographed Fixx CD on the shelf, so hearing them showcased on the soundtrack so prominently was kind of a blast. The original music manages to be even better, though, starting with the synthy stomp over the titles that's a perfect recreation of something I'd expect to open a horror movie with this sort of backdrop. The slow, plinking piano keys that drive the first couple acts of the film are unsettlingly eerie, leading up to the violent, stabbing strings that attack during its final fifteen or twenty minutes. The House of the Devil's original score impressed me so much that I felt compelled to pick up the soundtrack afterwards; I'm not sure if a CD was issued, but iTunes carries a double feature soundtrack with the original music from this film and I Can See You for $9.99.
Also included are a stereo PCM track and subtitles in English and Spanish.
I'm an easy mark, and even if The House of the Devil had just been a schlocky, campy homage to '80s horror, I probably would've given it a thumbs-up anyway. This is anything but some sort of mindless, smirkingly retro riff, though. The House of the Devil doesn't celebrate or poke fun at the early 1980s; it wholly escapes into that era. Immersive and unnervingly intense, it's superior to the overwhelming majority of genre films from the era in the first place. I think some level of appreciation for a more classic, atmospheric approach to suspense is necessary to get much out of it -- this is a slow, methodical burn where the lead character spends half the movie wandering around a house, after all -- but this easily ranks as one of the most exceptional horror movies of recent memory. The House of the Devil also looks and sounds fantastic on Blu-ray, and both of its audio commentaries are essential listens.
If anything, the only stumbling block with picking it up in high-def is that there's a limited edition DVD release that comes with a VHS copy in an awesome Gorgon-style clamshell, and there disappointingly isn't an equivalent for the Blu-ray set. That could make which version to buy a toss-up for collectors, but regardless of which format you opt for, The House of the Devil is a movie that screams out to be discovered. Highly Recommended.