Samantha needs money. She’s putting a payment down on her first apartment and she’s got $84 in the bank. Bills are due Monday, and it’s already Wednesday night. What’s a girl to do?
She spots a wanted ad: “Baby$itter Needed.” Perfect, right? Well, not if the ad was placed by Satan worshippers looking for fresh flesh to sacrifice, but what are the chances of that?
Pretty good, I’d say. Ti West’s The House of the Devil, titled so that moviegoers at least know what they’re in for, follows Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) as she makes one naïve mistake after another. Her first is accepting an offer to spend four hours babysitting in a creaky Victorian mansion on the outskirts of town. (The only evidence of civilization within miles is a graveyard. Bad sign.)
Samantha acknowledges the risks. “There are a lot of weirdos around these days,” she tells the homeowner Mr. Ulman (Tom Noonan, of Manhunter, perfectly cast). But she ignores the red flags anyway. The biggest, of course, is Mr. Ulman’s eleventh-hour admission that his “baby” isn’t a baby at all – it’s his mother, mysteriously holed up in the attic. No need to worry, he tells her. The job should be quick and painless.
It’s the evening of a historic lunar eclipse, and Mr. Ulman is anxious to see it. Is he an astronomer? No, not exactly, he says. Nothing about Mr. Ulman and his wife (Mary Woronov, of The Devil’s Rejects) is obvious, but they seem normal enough. There’s a Volvo in the driveway. Their kitchen is well stocked. They’re even considerate enough to leave Samantha money for pizza.
What could go wrong?
Quite a bit, but I shall say no more. West’s story unfolds at such an unhurried pace that those weaned on shock-a-minute movies like Scream and recent remakes of Halloween and Friday the 13th may find it slow going. But there is something refreshingly methodical about his old-fashioned approach.
Rather than heaping on the gore, West (Trigger Man) prefers to tease his audience along, building the tension slowly – his foreshadowing is subtle and stylish – before tossing us into the fire face-first. The atmosphere is taut with suspense, and the payoff is real and well-earned.
The House of the Devil plays like an homage – Rosemary’s Baby is an obvious influence – but the irony here is that West’s latest is so superior to many of the movies whose spirit he channels, including 1979’s When a Stranger Calls and countless damsel-in-distress flicks from the ’80s. From his era-appropriate soundtrack (featuring Thomas Dolby, Greg Kihn and The Fixx) to the visual style of his opening credits and his slyly reverential camerawork, West gives his movie the look and feel of a 25-year-old relic, yet nothing about Devil seems stale.
Clearly, West’s affection for these older films is sincere. He resists the temptation to make light of the genre’s well-worn conventions, as Wes Craven did in Scream, and instead plays it straight, without irony. There is no room for knowing giggles here; West’s intent is to scare, and he does so.
The House of the Devil is already available via Video OnDemand. It arrives in Bay Area theaters Nov. 14.