You can explain the ‘90s to someone who wasn’t there: they were just like the ‘00s, only the Internet was slower and the president could read. There. The ‘80s, on the other hand, barely make sense to me and I was there. There was a specific aesthetic to the cinema of the time, due in part to technical limitations, but also to unconventional storytelling left over from the previous decade, which combined to make flawed but fascinating movies. Additionally, the constant terror of nuclear annihilation gave rise to a renaissance of horror. What we are left with are grainy films of blood and fear, classic creature features and red red splatterpunk. Horror fans like me fetishize that time, pining for the weird stories and the inspired monsters set in a surburbia that was all too familiar. Ti West is one of these fans, and he proved it with 2009’s horror homage The House of the Devil.
Satanic cults were another bit of zeitgeist. The social conservatism necessarily came hand in hand with a religious revival, and religions need an enemy. Supposedly, there was a massive underground of devil-worshipers bent on the rape of children and the coming of the antichrist. Never mind that the idea of this brand of Satanist is completely ridiculous (since it assumes that these people accept the whole story of Christianity, only they consciously pick the side that dooms them to an eternity of torture, and also think there’s something in the Bible about THE antichrist), but there has never been a single piece of hard evidence of any Satanic Cult in modern America. Anywhere. Ever. Of course, this is religion, so evidence, logic and sanity bounce right off it like bullets off Superman’s crotch.
House of the Devil opens with a quote: “During the 1980s over 70% of American adults believed in the existence of abusive Satanic Cults …” I can’t speak to the accuracy of the figure, although I can tell you that 60% of the time, it works every time. What I really like is that the quote underlines the difference between belief and fact. Belief can invent Satanic Cults, but fact just wags its school librarian finger at us and purses its thin lips in rank disapproval. Belief is so much more fun. Insane Clown Posse had it right: fuck you, facts. No one wants you here.
The quote summons the ‘80s to the screen and after a fade, there they are. At every point, House of the Devil feels like a movie that was shot in 1983 (you can pinpoint that date because of the prominent use of the Fixx song “One Thing Leads to Another” during some awesomely Molly Ringwaldy dancing). Shot on 16mm, it has the slight graininess that marks the era. The scenery is exact: a rotary phone, a walkman that could be used to club a hobo to death, hairstyles that would have been popular at Crystal Lake, and high-waisted mom jeans on cute college girls. The cast reinforces this, from Captain Supermarket favorite Tom Noonan playing yet another soft-voiced creep, cult icon Mary Woronov coming out of retirement, to the star Jocelin Donahue, who looks almost exactly like a young skinny Karen Allen. It is this obsessive attention to detail that creates a film that not only feels like it came out in 1983, but that you watched at a sleepover and afterwards loudly informed everyone you weren’t scared and you only watched it through your fingers because that’s a family tradition.
It’s this familiarity, this pervasive déjà vu, that ultimately buoys a film in which not a whole lot happens. The movie is almost perversely static. It takes its sweet time getting to the first real scare and after that continues its glacial movement until the finale slams its foot on the gas and sends you hurtling over a cliff in a ball of fire. House of the Devil is a study in suspense, the slow burn pacing becoming unbearable as it moves along. Samantha (Donahue) spends most of the running time wandering around the big house in which she is ostensibly babysitting an unseen old woman, utterly oblivious to the dangers of which the viewer has already been apprised. Sam gradually becomes aware that something is not quite right, and by the time she’s ready to do something it is already too late. She is the perfect ‘80s protagonist: pretty, virginal, and in dire need of shouted advice from the peanut gallery.
The bulk of the movie takes place in a large house somewhere in the hinterlands of Connecticut. I nearly began the next sentence with “if the movie were made today,” which is part of House of the Devil’s magic trick. Even someone who knows it well occasionally forgets it wasn’t made in 1983. So instead, I’ll say: If Rob Zombie or Michael Bay’s company made this movie, the house would be clearly evil from the first shot. Covered in thick layers of dust and cobwebs the size of Volkswagens, smeared with bloody graffiti, packed with mutilated dolls and with a basement full of mutant rednecks just in case we missed the hint. Instead, the house is apparently normal, giving the action immediacy that a lot of modern horror films lack. In those movies, bad things only happen in obviously haunted places. Here, it could be in any house. Yours, for example.
From the normality of the playing field, House of the Devil slowly introduces horrific elements. A common trope in Satanic-themed horror involves inexplicable events designed to put the audience off balance. These aren’t necessarily evil or even supernatural, but have that flavor. The dogs fighting at the beginning of The Exorcist and the identical nuns in Angel Heart could easily have natural explanations, but they are sinister apparitions of the horror to follow. House of the Devil follows suit, from the traced call in the days before *69, to the weird surprise waiting in the bathtub, the unexplained events give the film that extra bit of what-the-holy-living-fuck that every Satanic horror movie desperately needs. By the time Mr. Scratch is ready for his close up, the audience has been softened to such a degree it’s nearly a relief.
The House of the Devil is such a confident film because it is so very specific. Ti West made it for people like me knowing that we would embrace it. He hit the right beats as only a genre geek can, turning them into a movie that was at once familiar and new. This is not just a must-see for fans of ‘80s horror, it is a love letter to them, an unexpected gift from the horror gods.