In an era where horror movies are mostly comprised of telegraphed scares and severed body parts, atmosphere is often one of the first casualties in their cacophony of violence. Filmmakers have been increasingly (if not always uniquely) successful in recent years creating scenarios where victims are decapitated, dismembered and generally dispatched, but that momentary shock or surprise seldom gives way to (or even pays off) prolonged suspense, and almost never leaves audiences with a feeling of fear lingering for more than seconds after the film is finished.
Writer-director Ti West, it seems, is singlehandedly waging a war against such reductive satisfaction: His movies languish in mundane details, deliberate pacing and producing expectations that something—anything—could happen at any time, creating a sense that it will, even after they're over, the lights have been turned back on and you've returned to normalcy.
And his latest, The House of the Devil, is a masterwork of suspense, a virtual refutation of all of the conventions of contemporary horror that manages to be terrifying precisely because it refuses to give you that gratification until you've almost given up wanting it.
The film stars Jocelin Donahue as Samantha (The Burrowers), a college sophomore who's trying to escape her messy, layabout roommate and move into a place where she can live in comparative cleanliness and order. Needing $300 for the first month's rent, she responds to a campus flyer looking for a babysitter, but upon arrival she discovers that her employer, Mr. Ulman (Tom Noonan), has lured her there under false pretenses: Rather than requiring her services for a child, he has an ailing mother-in-law who needs supervision while he and his wife (Mary Woronov) attend an event celebrating the lunar eclipse. Reluctantly agreeing after upping her hourly rate to cover her expenses and then some, Samantha settles in for an uneventful night at the Ulman house, only to discover that there may be something more dangerous afoot than an old woman lurking in an upstairs bedroom.
Given the proliferation of cinema studies—or maybe just enthusiasm—in the last two decades, moviegoers (and later, -makers) have developed appetites and fetishes for certain genres, styles and details within the art form that fuel their interest. For some, that "hook" may be even a bad-looking film that happens to have been shot in anamorphic widescreen; for others, it may be the use of practical rather than computer-generated special effects. For yours truly, period detail—particularly of the 1970s and '80s—always holds a unique allure, and The House of the Devil is steeped in it: From the freeze-frame opening credits sequence cut to the strains of a John Carpenter-esque theme song (courtesy terrific composer Jeff Giles) to Samantha's vintage Nike Cortez, the film exudes an authenticity that not only makes it look but feel like one of those classic '80s slasher movies that is still creepy today.
Fascinatingly, West meticulously pores over all of these minutiae but never lets it get in the way of character development or storytelling; in the same way that those older movies merely documented the time and place in which they were made, the onscreen textures, down to a hazy patina of film grain resembling the 35mm film stock of decades past, are presented matter-of-factly, generating a sense of creepy anticipation that hovers over the film even when it's just following Samantha into a pizza parlor or down an empty, brightly lit hallway.
At the same time, his technique is smartly limited to the same constraints as those of genre filmmakers from the era he's trying to replicate, specifically capturing much of the action in extended takes and locked-off pans and zooms that not only provide a sense of spatial depth but alienate poor Samantha within the world of the film and make her more vulnerable to possible assailants once she becomes imperiled. (It also helps that he uses time-honored techniques pioneered by movies like Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist—including flashes of horrific imagery—to unsettle the audience once Samantha finds herself fleeing from forces she still doesn't understand.)
Meanwhile, West has a remarkable gift for writing naturalistic dialogue and creating mundane scenarios that give his stories a realistic feeling—so much so, in fact, that it lulls the audience virtually into a state of boredom by the time that events escalate, making them far more intense when they do finally occur. In early scenes, Samantha's problems mostly dominate the narrative, vaguely foreshadowing events to come but primarily providing a backdrop for her desperation and undeserved trust; while a series of exchanges between Samantha and her friend Megan (Greta Gerwig) might ordinarily offer a filmmaker an opportunity to introduce future victims of horrors yet to come, West simply uses them as indicators of the two young women's personalities, as well as a provisional device to delay suspense even as its seeming cavalier absence begins to ratchet up automatically tension in a film we know will eventually turn horrific.
Moreover, West laces his film with extra mysteries and visual motifs that augment the more obvious themes and ideas in the story, making even the normalcy of everyday events seem weird in the context of the film. On separate occasions when Samantha is pursuing first her would-be apartment and then later the babysitting job, for example, she's told that another young woman previously campaigned for both; whether this is merely meant to be a reflection of the reliability that she exudes even to strangers or some strange indication of another untold story within this world, it prompts intrigue in viewers whether they realize it or not. On the other hand, while Samantha's repetitive forays into the dark and unseen corners of the Ulman house invariably require her to revisit its geography multiple times, West's direction expertly amplifies the feeling of potential danger with long, luxurious and most of all patient shots of the action, using a foyer stairwell and, later, a smaller one into the attic as visual indicators that she's venturing deeper and deeper into dangerous territory.
Finally, while West is undoubtedly the puppetmaster of this production, it would be nothing without Jocelin Donahue pulling at her strings and finding new depths within Samantha. Looking like the freshly scrubbed missing link between Margot Kidder and Karen Allen, Donahue takes West's straightforward, uncomplicated dialogue and gives it multiple dimensions—longing, resignation, resilience, determination and finally selfless fortitude, all in ways that seem blissfully undeliberate and even unacknowledged by the character herself. On the other hand, Noonan's Mr. Ulman provides a perfect foil for Samantha's eager-to-please lack of curiosity: The actor's formidable stature looms over her with obvious menace, even as his eerily calm demeanor reassures her that his oddest revelations are all perfectly normal. And Mary Woronov possesses exactly the kind of Ruth Gordon-Betsy Palmer creepiness that belies Mrs. Ulman's reclusive, affluent pedigree—helpful and charming but motivated by some sinister desire or reasoning that puts the audience on edge far more than the fact that she enters the film from a different doorway than they were expecting.
Overall, it's not merely the technical execution of the film but its patience—building palpable tension rather than rushing headlong into a more conventional creepshow—that makes it a triumph. Suffice it to say that such an approach will elicit varying reactions from viewers, some celebrating its anachronistic but arguably "classic" approach and others calling it a lot of sizzle for a little bit of steak. But following on the heels of Paranormal Activity's success, which was itself fueled as much by masterful technique and savvy storytelling as muscular marketing, The House of the Devil feels like more than just a movie. Rather, it's an indication of what may be next for the horror genre—namely, a return to the language of suspense rather than simple or superficial scares, and the kind of storytelling that leaves an impression with the viewer long after they've left the theater.