FILM Before the Halloween and Friday the 13th series made slasher cinema’s top instruments of unstoppable evil, and after Frankenstein, Dracula, and Werewolf pretty much had their day, there was a brief sunny window of opportunity for Satan. Or rather, Satan and his Satanists sounds like a garage band, yes? who dominated horror for a few years highlighted by Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Exorcist (1973), and The Omen (1976). Not to mention 1975’s Race with the Devil, that same year’s The Devil’s Rain (Ernest Borgnine as Satan’s acolyte? Credible!) and 1973’s Satan’s School for Girls.
Ah, those were the days. Who gives much screen time to Beelzebub now, when the multiplexes are cluttered with routine slasher sequels and Japanese horror remakes?
Somebody called Ti West evidently does. Bringing it all back with extra hugs, his new The House of the Devil is a retro thrillfest quite happy to sacrifice that babysitter to the Dark Lord. Without even a tip for her labor.
"Based on true unexplained events" (uh-huh), the buzzed-about indie horror has fanboy casting both old school (Dee Wallace, Mary Woronov, Tom Noonan all performing seriously rather than campily) and new (AJ Bowen of 2007’s The Signal and mumblecore regular Greta Gerwig). Its heroine (Jocelin Donahue), a 1980 East Coast collegiate sophomore desperate for rent cash so she can escape her dorm roomie’s loud nightly promiscuity, signs on for a baby- (actually, grandma-) sitting gig advertised on telephone poles. For tonight. During a lunar eclipse. Bad move.
The House of the Devil takes its time, springing nothing lethal until nearly halfway through. Even then, things escalate ever-so-slowly. Its 1980s setting allows for ultratight jeans, feathered hair, rotary dialing, a synth-New Wavey score, and other potentially campy elements the film manages to render respectfully appreciative rather than silly.
All freakdom doesn’t break loose until very late, at which point writer-director West effectively abandons all restraint (and hope), much assisted by The Last Winter (2006) composer Jeff Grace’s suddenly panicked score. The best contemporary horror has understood that potency of waiting. Prolonged development of relatable characters, agonizing our dread for their fates, amplifies standard terror to no end in movies like 2005’s Wolf Creek or Paranormal Activity.
House isn’t significantly better than various fine indie horrors of recent vintage and various nationality that went direct to DVD. (Quality, let alone originality, aren’t necessarily a commercial pluses in this genre.) But it is dang good, and that cuts it above most current theatrical horror releases. Which isn’t to say you shouldn’t be watching 1977’s Suspiria, 2005’s Satan’s Playground, 1994’s Aswang (a.k.a. The Unearthling) or 1981’s Possession instead of this deft throwback: now those surreal visions truly gave the Devil his due.
THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL opens Fri/20 in San Francisco.