I love that this movie starts with this crawl: During the 1980s over 70% of American adults believed in the existence of abusive Satanic Cults… Another 30% rationalized the lack of evidence due to government cover ups… The following is based on true unexplained events…”
With this burst of white on black type, The House of the Devil sets itself up as not just an 80s loving slasher, haunted house and satanic panic film. It reaches back to the occult film roots of the 70s, when every movie was supposedly based on a true story. This worrisome addition — it could have happened to someone you know — pushes this film past simple pastiche toward work of genius.
At some unnamed time in the 1980s, college student Samantha Hughes (Jocelin Donahue, who played the younger Barbara Hershey in Insidious Chapter 2, which is a meta bit of casting if I’ve ever seen one) wants to escape the college dorm she shares with her boorish roommate. A landlady (Dee Wallace in a great cameo that does as much to ground this film within its time as that title card open) says that she reminds her of her daughter, so she forgoes a security deposit, which gives hope to our struggling heroine.
A potential babysitting job for Mr. Ulman (Tom Noonan, who is always a welcome site) and his wife (Mary Woronov, who we love so much we made a Letterboxd list of her films). Samantha wants the job so bad that even after the first attempt at getting it falls through, her best friend Megan (Greta Gerwig, who would go on to write and direct Ladybird) tears down every other flyer, ensuring that she gets the job.
Things get weird. But hey — when the job pays $400 for just a few hours, weird is fine. Unbeknownst to Samantha, a mysterious stranger has already killed Megan and delivers a pizza that begins to warp her mind. There’s a great Walkman scene here that ends with a vase broken, the reveal that the original family in this house is dead and that all is not what it seems.
Then Samantha wakes up, bound and gagged inside a pentagram, whole the Ulmans and their son (the stranger who killed Megan and delivered the pizza) begin a ritual with their “mother” which involves forcing our heroine to drink blood from a goat’s skull. For a film that has crawled to this point, all hell quite literally breaks loose in a fervor of gore, flashes and quick cuts. It appears that our heroine has been picked to become the mother of the devil, but she has her own ideas of how to escape that fate.
The 16mm film look of this film — as well as the zooms within the frame — is a signifier that this film is of the decade — and the one proceeding it — that inspired it. It feels real, however, and not just a movie claiming to be Carpenter influenced. It lives and breathes and sounds of the time.
I haven’t liked much of director, writer and editor Ti West’s other films, but here, I feel like he captured eldritch energy in a bottle. There’s even a reference to the Patrick Dempsey film Loverboy, as the mysterious man asks if Samantha wants extra anchovies, the code that that film’s pizza shop used to indicate whether or not they should send one of their male escorts. Plus, the name of the Ulman’s is taken directly from the hotel manager in The Shining, a film that West has cited as an influence.
You can watch this movie with and without commentary by Joe Bob Briggs on Shudder.