Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on The New Portable.
If you were alive in the United States in the 1980s, you probably remember the Satanic Panic. Out of nowhere (it seemed), everyone thought that Satanists were everywhere. They were in the music industry and the movie industry, attempting to control the thoughts and ideas of impressionable children everywhere. Kids who played Dungeons & Dragons (as I did) were at risk of being captured by demonic forces, according to respected church leaders. Even my mom had concerns about D&D, and my mom is light years distance from religious fundamentalist. The 2009 film The House of the Devil plays on the ideas of the Satanic Panic. Essentially, the plot is “what would it be like if what people believed about Satanists were true?”
The House of the Devil, while made in 2009, takes place in 1983 and the attempt is to make the film look as close to coming from 1983 as possible. The film uses technology and techniques from the early 1980s, and the credits look exactly like they come from a made-for-television movie from 1981. The font looks like it belongs one of those white t-shirts with the red or blue sleeves.
Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) is a college student looking for a place to live. She decides to rent a house from a landlady (Dee Wallace) who gives her a break on the security deposit. This is very much set up to look like Samantha is going to be moving into the titular house and Dee Wallace is going to be the gatekeeper for Satan himself. That’s not the case, though. Samantha is desperate for money and decides to take a job babysitting. Things initially fall through, and her friend Megan (Greta Gerwig) tells her to take down the signs asking for a sitter. Instead, Mr. Ulman (Tom Noonan) manages to contact Samantha again and she agrees to the job for double the original pay.
Of course, this is where things are going to get strange. Megan drives Samantha out to the house in the middle of nowhere. Mr. Ulman eventually admits that there is no actual child for the job. No, Samantha will be sitting for the mother of Mrs. Ulman (Mary Woronov), who he says will not be any trouble. But, of course there’s a lot more going on here, and the house that we’ve been promised is not the one that Samantha is going to move into, but the one that she is in now.
There are some very effective moments in the film, most of which come toward the end. Once the reality of that is happening to Samantha is realize, all hell breaks loose (no pun intended), and things get dark and violent very quickly. There’s also a brilliant shock moment in the middle of the film that I won’t spoil at all.
What works here is the throwback feel of the film. It genuinely feels less like an homage to the slasher and demonic-influenced films of the 1970s and early 1980s and more like a film that genuinely comes from that era. It looks and feels 30 years older than it actually is, and I say that meaning it as much as a compliment as I possibly can. It really feels like the films it’s paying homage to, which is a good indication that writer/director Ti West is someone who genuinely loves the genre and the era.
The biggest problem I have with The House of the Devil is the last few minutes of it. There’s a moment that happens just before the actual ending that, had the movie ended there, would have been absolutely perfect and I’d have applauded this film and recommended it to everyone I could. Instead, the story goes for the full homage and gives us exactly what the ending would have been in 1983 instead of the smarter and more modern ending. I get why that decision was made, but I vehemently disagree with the decision. For a film that played with the genre tropes really well for 80 or so minutes, it stumbles at the end, albeit in a way that is understandable.
This was surprisingly good and effective. I didn’t know what to expect going in, but I was more than pleasantly surprised.
Why to watch The House of the Devil: If you lived through the Satanic Panic, this is what people thought was happening.
Why not to watch: The ending hits too hard on the clichés.