After my positive experience with X, I decided to travel back to the beginning and take another look at The House of the Devil, West’s first feature from 2009. I probably hadn’t see the film since about that time, and although the years have certainly been kinder, my initial criticisms are still there. The movie certainly captures the look, feel, and slow burn of the late 70s/early 80s horror, but that slow burn is a bit too slow, treading so softly the first hour and 10 minutes are a bit of a chore, making the abrupt change in the last 15-20 minutes a little too jarring and disconnected from the what came before. But you can already see West’s chops, and his strong clear voice when it comes to framing and editing so early in his career.
THE QUICK SUMMARY: Samantha has to get out of her dorm and into a new apartment. But dang, apartments are expensive in the 1980s, so a posting on campus about a babysitting gig sounds promising. The problem? It’s on the night of the mysterious lunar eclipse everyone is talking about and when Tom Noonan answers the door, well…you know things are going to get freaky. Samantha knows, too, but she needs the money, so how bad can it be? SPOILER: it can be plenty bad…
Car alarm snafu notwithstanding, West has a keen eye for period shooting, from his 16mm camera work to the zooms and frame freezes throughout the move. He also is completely unafraid to let a shot linger, and all of that together helps to build tension once Samantha is in the house and starting to understand that something isn’t quite right. he gets a lot of mileage out of some creepy images, like the shot of all the hair in the tub, and when he settles into any scene with Tom Noonan he lingers long enough for the awkward pauses and slips to take on a menace simply cutting back and forth would never achieve.
Performances across the board are solid, with special applause to Mary Woronov who makes the most of her limited screen time. I also can’t believe this is an early role for Greta Gerwig, who feels like she’s been around forever, and can’t help but bring immediate (if very short lived) life to Megan, Samantha’s loyal friend. As and the heroine, Jocelin Donahue exhibits the innocence and frustration of a young college girl trying to scrape up enough money to make her way. When the insanity hits, it gets a little crazy but she maintains a level of credulity that helps balance the whiplash in tone the movie makes.
Which leaves me somewhat where I was before. I wish the first hour or so had a little more punch, and the last 20 minutes had a little less. But there’s no denying The House of the Devil is clever, solid debut, taking advantage of nostalgia and the frenzy of the “Satanic Panic” of the time to sweet effect. I’ll take it.