Say what you will about The House of the Devil, but it is hard to argue it doesn’t nail the eighties’ aesthetics and culture. Writer/director Ti West utilized techniques and equipment from that decade to achieve the movie’s look and feel, and if you didn’t know The House of the Devil was produced in 2009, you likely would think you were watching a vintage horror movie.
It’s a refreshing take on the nostalgia that has overtaken pop-culture. God bless Stranger Things, and while that show captures the family movies Spielberg et al. created, those existed in their own, stylized, fantasy universes, approximated by the years they were filmed. Slashers and horror movies were often fully rooted in the era’s culture. Both aesthetics and the darker truths behind the curtain were gleefully exposed in schlocky cinema.
The House of the Devil gets many aspects of the eighties better than most. While Americana often is associated with the fifties, I will contend the eighties had an equally crucial global impact. It comes down to perception, of course, but an early scene in a pizza parlor captures 1983 U.S.A. pop-culture in the most straightforward manner: The slice with pepperoni and the king-size red, plastic cup with the Coke logo plastered on it. That might seem like an insignificant throwback, but during the eighties, it was the type of American culture that penetrated the minds and hearts of teens around the world. Stranger Things and its ilk have of course featured the same type of scene, but always within their own confines, and not the broader American zeitgeist. That simple scene with pizza and Coke that is the representation of the perceived real Americana experience. The jukebox and Chevy of the time if you so like.
West’s period piece revolves around the very real satanic cult hysteria of the eighties. The hysteria was real, that is. Kids weren’t actually joining cults to sacrifice animals and humans, but for the evangelical Reagan Generation, it was the type of fallacy used to blame economic hardships and (somewhat ironically within this context) the loss of the American Dream.
In its topic, the plot borrows as much from Rosemary’s Baby as it does from Friday the 13th. There isn’t a trail of grizzly murders in The House of the Devil, and the tone relies on a suspenseful build. Samantha — portrayed by Jocelin Donahue — knows something is off in the house where she is
baby-siting a couple’s elderly mother, but what is it? The viewer knows a cult is involved, and the movie’s title and lunar-eclipse-setting don’t set up many surprises. The build to the inevitable final third is effective, and Donahue does a good job marching toward what the viewer know is coming.
As already mentioned, the The House of the Devil’s visuals represent the eighties well, but West doesn’t just lean on nostalgia. Shots and angles are striking, and the color palette gives the movie a cohesive look. The camera work is consistently impressive.
Props, too, to the score. It is baffling that Jeff Grace hasn’t hit it bigger outside of the cult and indie scene. What he delivers is something that wouldn’t be out of place in a Hitchcock classic. Pair it with Sony Walkman-evergreens like
One Thing Leads to Another, and you have a killer soundtrack.
Yeah, I like The House of the Devil. The last third might be a bit rushed — a calculated move by Ti West it seems, as he did the same in The Innkeepers — and there is an early murder that seemed unnecessary and cruel. Maybe I’m just getting soft in my old age, and that aside, The House of the Devil is a technical treat that captures a needlessly ridiculed era perfectly. As far as entertainment goes, it’s an eerie watch.
I’m looking forward to diving further into Ti West’s oeuvre — the man clearly has a vision.
Bonus! IMDb’s trivia section for the movie has a lengthy description of what a Walkman is. Feel appropriately old.