House of the Devil (2009)

the house of the devil

“We actually don’t have a child.”

The Scoop: 2009 R, directed by Ti West and starring Jocelin Donahue, Tom Noonan, and Greta Gerwig.

Tagline: Talk on the phone. Finish your homework. Watch TV. Die.

Summary Capsule: A young college student desperate for rent money takes on one of those demonic babysitter jobs.  Still, better than working at Dairy Queen.

Kyle’s rating: Reminds me why I have never taken a babysitter gig, ever!

Kyle’s review: If you have never loved at least one horror film made in the 1980s, don’t waste your time with House of the Devil. If you haven’t seen at least, well, most of the horror films that rather overpopulated the 1980s, don’t expect to love House of the Devil, or even to understand what the point of its existence it. Rather than attempt only to tell a scary story set in that decade, House of the Devil strives for an authentic mode that would convince any unknowing viewer that this actually is a film from the ’80s.

There is no spoof and no real winking to the audience: this is ’80s horror played deadly straight. While I don’t recommend a viewing just to cast yourself back into that maligned decade, I do recommend you consider whether you found horror films with that decade-specific tone worthwhile viewing. Because beyond the conceit and the execution and all else, if you don’t find an extremely slow build to a swift climax ‘entertaining’ then I suggest finding your thrills and chills elsewhere.

Honestly, I have to think that the people who will find House of the Devil to be both an exceptional achievement and an engaging film will compose a exceedingly small percentage of its eventual total audience: a niche of a niche, the fringe of a fringe. Its not exactly an easygoing experience. I largely loved ’80s horror when that was all I could get, now I’ve moved on to films of every decade that appeal to my tastes. Yet there are plenty of ’80s horror “flicks” that would make any manner of personal ‘best of’ lists, so while my purview has expanded many of my loyalties have remained rooted in that influential decade. Put on the spot, I would call a-ha’s ‘Take on Me’ music video to be my personal choice for most important-to-me video of all time, while The Cure’s ‘Just like Heaven’ may be my most important song. Take that information as you will as it concerns my borne-of-the-1980’s brand of romanticism.

Still, I found House of the Devil to be quite the tedious experience, overall. By the time you realize that 90% of its runtime will be a laconic chronicling of what a somewhat stereotypical ’80s babysitter would typically do to ease the boredom of an unchallenging gig, events are just starting (quite slowly, naturally) to hit that relatively-unnerving climax . . . which is then basically almost as quickly as it started. I suppose this all sounds rather down on the film, which runs contrary to my intent.

This is a magnificent horror achievement, a film that replicates and seem of the exact films that influenced it; such a mimesis would be worthy of merit even if the film itself were utterly boring. While some could easily call it such, I have to gently remind you that horror films tend to (and should) be held to a different measure of quality. Beyond that, often (binding energies aside) the whole of a horror film is much, much less than the sum of its parts. How often have I pressed ‘play’ on a Friday the 13th installment or even The Fog only as background accompaniment to whatever main task I’m working on? I’ll look up for the ‘good’ parts but a lot of the boring bits are just an excuse to go to the bathroom (though I will admit The Fog usually succeeds at capturing my full attention once Tom Atkins meets Jamie Lee Curtis early on; damn that dream pairing and John Carpenter’s masterful direction!).

This is a difficult review to write, it seems, because essentially I’m reviewing the tone of the film more than the film itself. The tone is its most ascendent element; even knowing from a title card that the film takes place in the 1980’s doesn’t equate the specific emphasis on pizza as primary food source for college student or the inherent inability for a ‘good’ girl to room with a sexually-active ‘bad’ girl with the referential nature of the text. Loathe as you may be to consider a horror movie through such a lens, think of House of the Devil as a tonal poem, or perhaps an ode to what it must’ve been to be a hard-up-for-rent beautiful young girl in the scary/supernatural ’80s, and you’ll get properly into the groove. Such an approach renders the acting almost extraneous, as the titular house and sense of ever-building dread accomplishes the bulk of the work. But I would be remiss if I didn’t comment on the understated menace of Tom Noonan, the expert channeling of ’80s energies Jocelin Donahue accomplishes, and Greta Gerwig in her first film role I could ever really tolerate her presence in. Hooray!

If my ambivalent review has communicated nothing else, you should now be armed with the very real sense that House of the Devil is a difficult film for even the most ardent of horror fanatics to unpack. If you ‘get’ the film and appreciate its conception without hesitation, I envy you. I can certainly apprehend such an absorption of the film. I just believe that most viewers will have to breathe in and breathe out a handful of times during the film just to enjoy it properly. Out of all the films I can recall seeing in 2009, this one ranks highest for me wanting to hear the opinions of other viewers. Most normal films endear themselves or not on that initial viewing: this is, I hope I have made quite clear, not at all a normal film. I hope you get a chance to see it, you definitely should if you do, and you certainly should share your opinion with me afterwards, because in many ways your first post-credits question will be the same as mine: what the hell did I just see?

“For some reason, all of the lamps in my house are on the floor. I can’t explain why.”


  • The song playing on her authentic massive Walkmen is ‘One Thing Leads to Another’ by The Fixx

If you liked this movie, try these:

  • Suspiria
  • The Fog
  • House


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