Ti West is a devious, dangerous, exciting filmmaker.
His feature-film debut was 2005’s low-budget, high-pleasure The Roost, a self-assured, retro, B-level, isolated teen/creature feature interspersed with interludes from the type of late-night TV horror show that used to be a staple. His follow-up was Trigger Man, a hunter-becomes-hunted thriller that, though microscopically funded and narratively thin, was effectively terse.
West really hit his stride, however, with The House of the Devil, a diabolical, hackles-raising chiller that blends elements of the Babysitter, Old Dark House and Demon Child horror subgenres into something fresh and unanticipated.
Set during a lunar eclipse evening in the 1980s—when, as the opening titles inform us, “over 70 percent of Americans believed in the existence of Satanic cults” (approximately the same number of people also believed Ronald Reagan competent)—The House of the Devil focuses on college student Samantha Hughes (a sympathetic and game Jocelin Donahue), who is trying to raise money to move into her own apartment and out of a dorm room shared with a slovenly, sex-addicted roommate. That Samantha’s potential new landlord is played by horror icon Dee Wallace and that her desired new home is next to a church where the film’s title appears in freeze-frame are just two of the many sly winks in West’s repertoire.
Samantha’s best hope for quick cash is a babysitting job advertised by the mysterious, molasses-voiced Mr. Ulman (the great character actor Tom Noonan). Although her friend Megan advises Samantha against the last-minute gig (“The kid could be from hell,” Megan says knowingly, despite the pre-Scream, pre-postmodern era), Samantha has no other options, and, besides, Mr. Ulman promised to make the night “as painless as possible.” Nudge, nudge.
Needless to say, the evening goes the way of the aforementioned netherworld. To provide more detail would be to spoil the fun and fright that follows.
Suffice it to say that in an age of slick but hollow remakes of genre classics like Halloween and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as well as witless, thudding exercises in torture like Saw and Hostel, The House of the Devil seems bold by its old-school virtues and sense of cinematic joy.
Although it is hard-boiled horror to be sure, The House of the Devil lowers the splatter quotient in favor of cold, controlled, efficient tension. West understands that suspense is derived not from suffering but from anticipation.
In The House of the Devil, viewers never know what West is going to do; he has you gripping your armrest when nothing happens and gasping in surprise when you least expect. He finds tension in stand-bys like creaking floorboards, ringing phones and shadows under a doorframe, but he also milks the menace of a dripping faucet, globs of hair and even a slice of pepperoni pizza.
To paraphrase an old friend talking about another (and somewhat dubious) old friend, I admire Ti West, but I wouldn’t buy an apple (or a pizza) from the guy.