|DON’T TELL MOM THE BABY-SITTER’S DEAD: Jocelin Donahue.|
Well, howdy there, Mephistopheles.
It’s been a while, what with all these mopey vampires, slapstick zombies and lusty werewolves hanging around the multiplex. Heck, with a stream of remakes supplementing our yearly Saw enema, modern horror barely has room for the Prince of Darkness and his minions to sacrifice teenagers. While he never actually appears in director Ti West’s retro screamer The House of the Devil, Satan’s little helpers make a welcome return to the screen, bringing their funky rituals and pentagrams along.
When a film begins with a quote about American Satanism and a “based on true events” claim, it doesn’t look good for a perky college girl like Samantha (Jocelin Donahue). Looking to earn cash, she answers a baby-sitter ad and heads to a creepy house in the boonies. Were the gothic architecture and lack of interior lighting not enough to send her running, the homeowner—a foreboding Tom Noonan—admits it’s not really a baby-sitting job, but an elder-care position. See, the missus has an invalid mother, and tonight there’s a very important lunar eclipse. Mother stays upstairs, he says. Just watch TV and eat pizza. And don’t go upstairs.
Devil is a respectful throwback to a bygone era, the kind of homage Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez could have nailed with Grindhouse had they resisted elbowing our ribs with each winking frame. West crafts an ode to haunted-house flicks and the “satanic panic” of the 1980s, a time when the tabloid news and its true believers thought a devilish underground was rising. West never states the film’s era, but simply presents his characters’ feathered hairdos and massive Walkmans. The film’s aesthetic also screams ’80s, with its grainy appearance and elevator music score. The insinuating presentation is impressive, especially from a director whose catalog includes a direct-to-video sequel to Cabin Fever—a flick that doesn’t really suggest subtlety.
But subtle Devil is, especially as West wears his influences during Samantha’s journey from jitters to full-blown terror. Like any fearmonger worth his screams, West practices Hitchcockian dread, ratcheting tension through anticipation. Aside one jarring early scare, Devil spends the majority of its 95-minute running time following Sam through the catacomblike house accompanied by a symphony of footfalls and creaks. We know little beyond what Sam knows—that something’s not quite right. And just when West stretches our attention to the snapping point, a bitch slap of a climax recalls Dario Argento at his most unhinged, with disorienting camera work and slick pandemonium balling the previous hour’s dread into one extended fright.
Devil’s tone suggests Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, but the film also echoes Polanski’s 1976 freak show The Tenant, a paranoid, claustrophobic fantasy from which West borrows his final shot. The cast is pitch perfect, with newcomer Donahue—looking like a mix of Amityville Horror scream queen Margot Kidder, a young Karen Allen, and Suspiria heroine Jessica Harper—carrying most of the film alone. Mumblecore darling Greta Gerwig appears briefly as a concerned friend, and cult actress Mary Woronov (Eating Raoul) is the nefarious wife. But it’s Noonan, best known as the villain Francis Dollarhyde in Michael Mann’s pastel-splattered Hannibal Lecter opus Manhunter, who kills it. The character actor seethes through a gentle façade: He’s soft-spoken, polite, accommodating and awkward, coming off like a grown-up Norman Bates, mommy issues and all.
Is The House of the Devil for everybody? Hell no. Those seeking a complex story line will go comatose, while gorehounds will fall asleep (though the red stuff does spray). But for anyone looking for old-school suspense done proper, West’s economical flick is a sure bet, dialing up the dread in perfect increments. Tense, frightening, disorienting, jarring and wholly satisfying, The House of the Devil marks the glorious return of history’s favorite horror icon, and the arrival of a director whose controlled chills could someday rank among the best.
SEE IT: The House of the Devil is rated R. It opens Friday at Living Room Theaters. Cinematographer Eliot Rockett, a Portlander, will answer questions at screenings Friday-Saturday, Dec. 4-5.