Almost nothing happens in this film and yet I think it is one of the best horror films of the last 30 years. It is rare that you see a modern film that instantly becomes one of your favourite movies, but this happened for me when I watched House Of The Devil for the first time and was totally blown away by it. Not since I first watched The Exorcist when I was a teenager had I had as terrifying and flat-out exhausting an experience watching a horror movie. By the time this film ends you feel like you have just completed a serious work out - the tension starts early and builds to an almost unbearable climax. House Of The Devil is completely immersed in the lore of the horror genre, yet by using so much of the 'established iconography of horror cinema' Ti West manages to create something totally new. In previous reviews on this blog two films have been mentioned that have sought to pay homage to 70's and 80's horror to differing levels of success (Scream and Hatchet); Ti West goes even further in seeking to mimic the classics, and in doing so creates a film and movie-watching experience that is superior to many of the benchmark films it is paying tribute to.
Ti West so brilliantly manages to emulate the look of 80s film that I think many people would not be able to tell this film was released in 2009 rather than 1989. His direction in this film is nothing short of genius. West dispenses with the depressing modern trend of graphic gore and lack of imagination and instead replaces it with shock horror, plot, character and suspense to create a slow-burning horror classic that can sit alongside any of the great horror films. For a horror fan, the way this film is rooted in 80s horror is so familiar you almost get a weird sense of comfort watching it (alongside the terror). The haircuts, huge walkman, our heroine being driven to a creepy apparently abandoned old house in the middle of the night, an elusive and mysterious man, a full moon, late night pizza delivery - we have been here before. The heroine's dance through the house listening to her walkman is such a throwback you can't help but smile. Despite the familiarity, the director is so confident with it that something new and exciting is created.
None of this would matter if Jocelin Donahue, the heroine of the piece, did not give an excellent performance. She is the only character for large sections of the film and its success rests on her shoulders. Donahue plays the role to perfection as the wide eyed and innocent lead, babysitting so that she can afford the rent for her dream student flat. Left alone in the aforementioned creepy mansion she drifts from one room to the next watching TV, ordering pizza and listening to her walkman. Little White Lies said that watching her approach her fate is like watching a 'moth trying to seduce a flame' and it is this impending fate, unclear but inevitable, that creates an atmosphere of high dread.
The other major character that deserves discussion is the mansion itself. From the moment you see it, you know things are going to go badly. The house is dark and foreboding and is the exact type of house that neighbourhood children make up stories about and that you avoid on your bike as a kid. I have not seen as effective a setting since Danvers State Mental Asylum in Session 9. However unlike the asylum in Session 9 it is the familiarity of the house which makes it really scary - we have all grown up with stories about creepy houses and the people that live in them, which grounds the horror of House Of the Devil in reality. West eschews the rotting, fleshy horror of say Leatherface's house in Texas Chainsaw Massacre and instead creates a stifling, airless, dusty Gothic home. The house appears normal, if dated, but is permeated by a chilling, lifeless quality. There are pictures of cowboys on the wall in one of the bedrooms, but where are the children? In this empty, staid, lifeless environment it is hard not to imagine the loneliness, repression and abuse that lies at the heart of the house. Yes, this is how you make a scary film.