The House of the Devil is a wonderfully witty and creepy throwback horror movie. Writer-director-editor (Ti West) sets just the right tone, with the movie's fashions, soundtrack, and freeze-frame-and-zoom-laden style generating an amusing frisson of recognition. West pays homage to the horror classics of the 1970s and '80s, casting a couple of cult icons (Mary Woronov and Tom Noonan) as oddball antagonists, while taking his slow burn of a story and his heroine's plight with commendable seriousness.
Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) is a sweet-natured and retiring young woman, unlike her rambunctious, loud, and self-assured best buddy, Megan (Greta Gerwig). After moving into a new apartment, Samantha is desperate for a way to make a few more bucks. When Mr. Ulman (Noonan) comes on campus looking for a babysitter, Samantha jumps at the opportunity. Once she convinces Megan to give her a ride to the creepy old Ulman house, Samantha learns that the job is not quite what was advertised -- Ulman and his wife (Woronov) don't even have a child. As the night goes on, it becomes clear that Samantha is a much bigger part of the Ulmans' plans for the evening than she would ever want to be.
Gerwig demonstrates range in a funny feathered-hair performance. Relative newcomer Donahue is given a heavy burden in the movie, because if we didn't identify with and care about Samantha, it could have been a chore to sit through. She comes through with a deceptively nuanced and engaging performance. The tension is on a low boil for much of the movie. One hears complaints in certain quarters about the pace of the film, and there's no doubt that as real scares go, there's a lot more running time devoted to the setup than to the payoff. But that's West's style, and it works here. He takes a very deliberate approach. As in horror classics like Rosemary's Baby and Last House on the Left, the filmmaker allows us to spend some time with these characters. He builds up a bit of mystery before showing us their unpleasant fate. This, along with West's obvious visual finesse, makes the film a much richer experience than most contemporary horror films. If you don't get a kick out of watching doomed babysitter Samantha put on that portable cassette player and dance around that creepy house to the strains of the Fixx's "One Thing Leads to Another," you might need a course in Horror Appreciation 101. leave a comment --Josh Ralske