Call it the best ’80s babysitter-in-peril movie never made. “The House of the Devil” delivers about as much as one could reasonably hope from the not-quite-alone-in-the-house category, with the bonus of authentically re-creating the low-budget look and feel of that era’s classic horror entries. Still, talk about setting your sights low, as the pic seems content to polish a subpar subgenre. Nevertheless, auds seeking a stripped-down retro spine-tingler that builds to an intense climax will appreciate what director Ti West has accomplished, with strong on-demand interest for the Magnet title leading up to its Oct. 30 theatrical release.
Starring doe-eyed Jocelin Donahue, a Karen Allen lookalike young enough not to have been born in the year the film takes place, “House” turns the complaints about mid-’80s horror films — too draggy, not enough killing — into assets, demonstrating director Ti West’s mastery of slow-boil tension while making good on its title by unleashing some super-creepy satanic cult action toward the end. But for the first 40 minutes, there’s nothing but scene setting as college sophomore Sam (Donahue) eats pizza with friend Megan (“Baghead” actress Greta Gerwig) and frets about how she’ll pay for the apartment she’s rented to get away from her oversexed dorm roommate.
On the night of a full lunar eclipse, Sam takes a job babysitting at an ominous-looking Victorian mansion in the boonies, an opportunity rendered all the more suspect by the discovery that sinister-looking Mr. and Mrs. Ulman (Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov) don’t actually have a baby. Instead, they ask her to keep an eye on their eccentric old mother, increasing the fee — $400 for four hours’ work — to make it worth her while.
Frankly, it’s odd that they’d change the story at this late stage in the proceedings, especially since Sam spends the entire time alone, snooping through every room (all but the attic, basement and bedroom, where something truly sinister is happening, that is) and wondering who or what is sharing the house. Given where the story eventually leads (let’s just say babysitting involves a far greater commitment than Sam signed on for), it would’ve been more fitting to have the character’s increasingly nervous curiosity revolve around an unseen child, or, for that matter, to have her salary negotiations reflect what the job really entails — minus the satanic stuff, of course.
West is clearly more interested in the build-up than the payoff, which is plenty bloody but over too soon (and, thanks to some stroboscopic cutting, physically uncomfortable to watch). Some may feel the helmer draws things out too much early on (indeed, producers trimmed four minutes for the version that played the Tribeca Film Festival), though the pleasure lies in the near-excruciating anticipation of what terror lies ahead. As editor, West expertly calibrates these early scenes, condensing Sam’s evening while suggesting how the boredom of a babysitting job can play mean tricks on an overactive imagination.
That said, without a super-shocking scene of some sort to kick off the film, auds are most likely to spend the first half marveling at how meticulously West (who gained attention with the low-budget thrillers “Trigger Man” and “The Roost”) and production designer Jade Healy have conjured the mid-’80s milieu. From the feathered hair and period-appropriate synthesizer score to West’s unironic use of zooms and evident affection for the grainy, high-contrast look of pics like “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” the film lovingly embraces a style of filmmaking whose passing few others seem to mourn.