‘The House of the Devil’ is a Trip Back in Suspense Horror

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CHICAGO – Halloween is the perfect time to revisit those horror films of youth, lost in the mall theaters or crackling through the VCR in a multiply rented copy. “The House of the Devil” reveres those roots and brings them back to light.

The year is 1983 and Jocelin Donahue portrays Samantha, a financially challenged student in a small college town. Desperate to leave her dorm living situation, she finds a perfect apartment right next to campus. The problem is she doesn’t have the rent down payment and has no means to get it.

Fresh Faced 1980s Gal: Jocelin Donahue as Samantha in ‘The House of the Devil’
Fresh Faced 1980s Gal: Jocelin Donahue as Samantha in ‘The House of the Devil’
Photo credit: © Magnolia Pictures

Enter the campus bulletin board, with a mysterious posting for a “babysitter” to make instant cash. When Samantha calls the number, a serious voice tells her how desperate he is to have her take the job.

When she arrives at the house, the peculiar Mr. Ulman (Tom Noonan) gives her a rundown of her duties. She is actually caring for an elder within the house, who never comes out of her room. She is briefed further by Mrs. Ulman (Mary Woronov), who seems most interested in Samantha’s youth and beauty.

Samantha must then contend with the creaky house, the impending eclipse of the moon and some strange discoveries to come.

Ti West’s direction, from his screenplay, connects with the elements of the horror film genre in the year he sets the film, 1983. Every noise and moan of the house and its surroundings dictate that lonelier time, before internet and mobile devices associated the ordinary college girl with the larger world.

West is obsessed with the suspense of it all, almost to a fault. Jocelin Donahue’s Samantha stands in for the babysitter in all of us, waiting for the night to end and creeping through the house in all of its hidden rooms, secret closets and unusual items. Her fresh faced innocence and ordinariness is perfect for the role, and the art direction, despite a limited budget, is appropriately early 1980s.

Mary Woronov as Mrs. Ulman in ‘The House of the Devil’
Mary Woronov as Mrs. Ulman in ‘The House of the Devil’
Photo credit: © Magnolia Pictures

There is an effective use of music as a foreshadowing, as Samantha is a early proponent of the Walkman – fun to see in the context of the headphone society of now – and the rock songs she listens to adds a seductive creep factor to her curious explorations.

The film also uses veterans of the ‘80s era – most notably Mary Woronov (”Eating Raoul”) and Dee Wallace (”E.T.” and “Critters”) very effectively, especially in the realm of the suspense. Tom Noonan’s Mr Ulman is a masterful centerpiece, giving build-up to the night’s potential adventures and icily creating an enigmatic atmosphere to ponder.

The payoff to all this, without giving anything away, is a Rorschach test using the style of scare factor that permeated the suspense horror of another time. It is the bits and pieces that surround the blood and avenging towards the end that give this film its flair, generating the cringe for the simple bump in the night.

This film may be most effectively shown through the dusty tapeheads of an old VCR, on a chilly and isolated Halloween night, with the lights off and the outside world turned in. The House of the Devil awaits you.

”The House of the Devil” opened in a limited release October 30th, and is also available on VOD, Amazon VOD and Xbox Live. Featuring Jocelin Donahue, Tom Noonan, Mary Woronov, Dee Wallace and Greta Gerwig, directed by Ti West. Rated “R” Click here for the HollywoodChicago.com interview with director Ti West.

HollywoodChicago.com senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

By PATRICK McDONALD
Senior Staff Writer
HollywoodChicago.com
pat@hollywoodchicago.com

© 2009 Patrick McDonald, HollywoodChicago.com

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