“Are you not the babysitter?” For those who haven’t seen The House of the Devil, this is an innocuous question; for those who have, it will undoubtedly elicit shudders of recognition. The line of dialogue comes at a decisive turning point in the film, and instigates the first real blast of violence. That Ti West’s truly frightening horror film is not prone to such explosions—the director is more interested in the emotional toll of creeping terror on the audience—makes that moment, and the words that precede it, all the more disturbing. West proves to be a master of the unexpected in The House of the Devil, but the surprises aren’t the literal events onscreen so much as how he manages to withhold information and traditional scares without creating an iota of slack.
The House of the Devil is two things, successfully, neither of which is easily pulled off: a sustained exercise in minimalist tension and an uncanny eighties nostalgia trip. That these two modes don’t cancel each other out is something of a minor miracle, or at least announces the official arrival of a major talent (Devil is West’s third feature). Structurally similar to something like Tarantino’s Death Proof in the way it attenuates suspenseful build-up to drastic, nearly absurd lengths before paying off with bursts of extreme bloody horror (though missing that film’s deconstructionist sophistication), The House of the Devil excels at slow burn. In fact, that’s what most of the film’s 95-minute running time is. The eerily slight plot concerns a beautiful yet prim college sophomore named Samantha (an immensely likable Jocelin Donahue) who accepts a dubious, last-minute babysitting job from the ominous Ulmans (Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov, too perfectly cast perhaps) to find a way to pay the deposit on a new apartment; detailing the rest of the narrative blow by blow would undoubtedly ruin the film’s chief pleasures, which have to do less with what ultimately happens than how it happens, or rather how West shows it to us. He directed, wrote, and, crucially, edited the film, and it’s rhythmically quite sophisticated. Much of the film is preoccupied with watching Donahue creep around the Ulmans’ house like a curious feline, turning lights on and off, peering into doors, looking out windows.
The stretched-out anxiety grows unbearable, and even though we’ve been given clues here and there about what might be going on (the film even opens with a faux-sobering litany of onscreen facts about real-life Satanic cults), West invests the film with enough off-kilter details and odd nuances to keep us on our toes. The House of the Devil has its share of shocking gross-outs and demonic makeup effects, but days later one might instead recall the way Samantha’s friend Megan (Greta Gerwig, a naturalistic breeze here) wrinkles her nose when eating a slice of pizza or a piece of hard candy (food becomes a surprisingly crucial element in the film) or just how light hits a stained glass window on the Ulmans’ foyer staircase. It’s about as elegant as any horror film in the past decade, not least because of its shooting style, employing a host of hauntingly composed slow zooms that gradually penetrate all of the film’s calmly appointed interiors.
Yet this is not another Shining riff: The House of the Devil proudly announces its antecedents right from the beginning—it’s not an homage to Kubrick, but rather to dingy, cheap 1980s American horror movies. Not only is the film clearly set in this particular past (check out Samantha’s trusty oversized walkman, Megan’s baseball jersey, the pizza joint décor) but it also apes the filmmaking style of the era. The opening credits come on in thick, freeze-frame-accompanying yellow font, backed by synth pop: yet just when one’s about to dismiss West’s film as “Wet Hot American Horror,” the singular, sculpted meticulousness of the film’s design (of which nostalgia is a part, but not the whole) begins to provoke and unsettle rather than lull or distance. Homage is simply West’s vessel; the result is genuine, and clearly the work of a director who puts more love into each composition and perfectly timed beat than he does into foregrounding period signifiers (once we get into the Ulmans’ house, the film could be taking place at any time, regardless of Samantha’s high-waisted jeans).
There is indeed payoff to all this delicious dramatic dawdling. If it all happens too quickly, after an impressive period of everything moving so wonderfully slowly, then at least it leaves us wanting more (a surprising response to a film given to fits of sudden excess, perhaps). There are horrifying images in the last fifteen minutes of The House of the Devil (West gets a lot of mileage out of one flashing ghoulish visage), but most memorable is the endless anticipation. Of course, when The House of the Devil was first acquired for release following its festival premieres, distributors suggested West “tighten” his film, quicken the pace, remove some of the slack, in an effort to make it more commercial. West didn’t cave. Let’s hope he continues to stick to his guns; I can’t wait to wait again.