Something was up with America in the 1980s. For some reason, everyone in the country was convinced that Satanists were in their midst, performing grotesque rituals and preying on the innocent. The decade was full of crimes (sometimes imagined) that were pinned on cults and roaming packs of Satan-worshippers disguised as your neighbours, co-workers and friends. It was weird.
Ti West’s The House of the Devil reminds us of that fact via title card before seamlessly taking us back to the decade. It’s all 80s, from the style of clothes and the way people walk and talk, to the type of film the whole movie is shot on and the font choices in the opening. If you didn’t know better, you would think this was a hidden gem from 1982 and not a buzz-worthy indie flick from 2009.
The film is a slow burn, following around the effortlessly beautiful girl next door Samantha on a seemingly ordinary day. She’s just living her life, trying to move out of her dorm room, hanging out with her carefree BFF, picking up a babysitting gig for some extra cash, and ultimately becoming a pawn in a ritual sacrifice. But she doesn’t know that part yet. The ominous title and the cult reminder stay in our minds as we watch Samantha. She doesn’t know something strange and horrible is coming, but we do. We hear the radio announcer discuss the lunar eclipse happening that night, while Samantha is too busy worrying about making a down payment on her new apartment. We tense up as Samantha drives through the night to a large house outside of town, but she squares her shoulders and thinks about the money. She is practical and determined, refusing to let fear get the best of her, and we know just how foolish that is.
It’s an exercise in tension building and it finally comes to a head in a no-holds-barred finale, where the mysterious home-owners knock Samantha unconscious, tie her up and place her in the centre of a pentagram drawn on the attic floor before forcing her to drink blood from a goat’s skull. The Satanists are here! Samantha, in true final girl fashion, manages to kill two of her assailants and escape, but the damage is already done. She is seeing visions and is seemingly impregnated by something evil.
The House of the Devil doesn’t cover any new ground, in fact, it all seems somewhat familiar: shades of Rosemary’s Baby, The Amityville Horror, basically any haunted house movie you’ve ever seen. But that doesn’t mean it’s predictable or overdone. The fact that we know a house in the middle of nowhere is bad news, and we know that a teenage girl alone on the night of a lunar eclipse is the perfect set up for a horror movie, that we’re reminded of other horror classics, that we remember the Satanic cults of the 1980s: it all adds together to keep the tension constantly building, keep us on the edge of our seat waiting for the inevitable evil to come in and take Sam away. The slow burn pays off like gangbusters, and amidst the slew of mid-2000s gorefests and slashers, it makes the old feel new again.