A weird indie horror gem crept into theaters last week while you weren't looking. Called House of the Devil, it's a smart, spare homage to early-80s B-grade horror movies that pleasingly overturns nearly all the conventions of the genre.
Showing in a few select theaters in the US, House of the Devil has been a word-of-mouth hit since it became available as a view-on-demand download on Amazon last month. It's the simple story of Samantha, a college girl who needs some extra money and answers an ad for a babysitting job. When her friend drops her off at the remote house where she'll be babysitting, a neurotic older man tells her that actually he needs her to take care of his "anti-social" mother-in-law, and offers her $400 to do it. The whole scenario is creepy, and also, did I mention there's an eclipse going on? Yeah.
Directed by Ti West, a veteran of indie productions, the movie is both a sly takeoff on the classic late 70s/early 80s babysitter-in-peril flick (complete with feathered hair, lurid yellow credits and Walkmens), and a stellar entry in the genre. It's also packed with brilliant cult actors Tom Noonan (Synecdoche, New York), Mary Woronov (Eating Raoul, Devil's Rejects) and AJ Bowen (The Signal). Noonan is pitch-perfect as the man who hires Samantha, and Woronov is simply delicious as his regal, fur-clad wife, who makes every sentence she utters seem replete with ironic double-meaning.
What's so wonderful about House of the Devil is the way director West sets the stage for what we know will eventually become a devil-worshiping bloodbath. Everywhere Samantha goes - school, town, a restaurant - seems strangely empty. Filling this absence of people is the music from her Walkman, TV broadcasts about the impending eclipse, and the realistic chatter she shares with her pizza-guzzling friend Megan. West transforms the necessities of low-budget filmmaking into a moody emptiness that sets the perfect surreal tone.
Adding to the surrealism is the fact that none of our characters behave according to the generic scripts handed down to them by decades of trashy Satan movies. Instead of being menacing, Noonan's devil-worshiper is apologetic and uncomfortable. When Samantha is left alone in the house, she accidentally opens the door to the basement, peers inside, and then withdraws immediately. Same goes for the moment when she almost opens the attic room which we already know contains the remains of a family slaughtered in a previous Satanic rite. Instead of doing the expected "going into the dark, scary place" thing, Samantha orders pizza, does her homework, and dances with her Walkman.
Though this movie is scary, I think its main charm isn't an ability to deliver shocks or suspense. Instead, House of the Devil is thrilling because it's such a thoughtful re-imagining of a genre not exactly known for thoughtfulness. West has taken a cheesy story and made it a prickly, intriguing tale of youthful loneliness and paranoia. Even his Satanists are interesting and unexpected.
If there's any flaw in this fantastic film, it's in the final act when the horror we've been waiting for is at last revealed. All the dark, quirky satire is ripped away and we're confronted with something that looks deflatingly like what we expected. But of course this is only disappointing in context, because the rest of the movie surprises us at every turn. And ultimately you can't ask for more than that in a horror movie - cudos to West for doing something genuinely original with a subgenre so cliched it's become a parody of itself.
Whether you love 80s retro or simply crave a cool new cult movie, I can't recommend House of the Devil enough. It just goes to show that in the hands of the right creative team, Satanism never gets old.