It’s been a while since I saw a decent horror movie. It takes a lot to frighten this gal. However, House of the Devil did just that. Set in the early ’80s, a clear homage to pre-gore chillers like Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Rosemary’s Baby, Ti West carefully plucked together the almost-perfect modern-day classic. Its to-the-point tagline: “Talk on the phone. Do your homework. Watch TV. Die,” written out underneath an ominous house lit on fire, the profile of a young girl above it, looks like it’s been taken straight off a VHS stack in an old video rental store.
Make no mistake, House of The Devil was released in 2009. And while I had my doubts, I was instantly taken by its opening sequence. We’re introduced to Samantha Hughes (Jocelin Donahue), as she coyly walks through a suburban campus, during a crisp fall afternoon, headphones around her ears, long wavy brown hair, and an eerie, yet appropriate score that sounds strikingly similar to “Moving in Stereo” by The Cars. The camera-work is so well-crafted, you’ll probably miss all the tricks without even realizing their significance (i.e. long shots that wait anxiously for the character to come into view, quick close-ups of the girl’s face as she rounds a corner, a still, low wide-angle shot of a barren dorm hallway, jump-shots that seem to isolate and put the main protagonist into view, as if she’s the center of this universe you’ve just entered.) There’s a stagnant, grainy quality to the film color, a faded entry into something as clear as the past.
Samantha Hughes answers a babysitting ad. Her lax friend, Megan, a blonde-haired tomboy/airhead (think PJ Soles in her red baseball hat via Carrie), drives her out to the house, which we come to find is in the middle of nowhere. Old Volvo. Wooded roads. Deeper and deeper. It’s the skeletal foundation of any scary movie. Boom. Better yet, have them drive past a cemetery, and you’ve got yourself tactful, Scooby Doo foreshadowing. So, without spoiling the fantastically predictable plot, the girls arrive at the site of Samantha’s babysitting job, and meet the man of the house, a tall guy with a cane and shifty eyes. Then, Megan leaves, and Samanatha is left to meet the man with the cane’s wife. The woman’s face is flawlessly terrifying. It’s like she walked out of the game of Clue, a tightly pulled back bun and glossy deep red lips that call to mind the grandmother from the twisted ’70s novel, Flowers in the Attic. You expect her to offer powdered donuts laced with rat poison. You just know she has a vanity lined with perfume bottles and nail polish for her pointed long fingernails. She is in a blouse that is buttoned to the neck, a broach, and an air about her that is so heavy and delightful.
There’s a word for this: sweet, sweet….authenticity. Every solid ’80s slasher, however poorly organized, nonsensical, drawn out, or quickly executed, needs a few extra additions to complete the final product: dim lighting, ankle cut jeans, pizza, awkward dialogue that leaves long pauses in between conversation, a catchy tune that everyone will come away from the movie fearful to listen to (i.e. “One Thing Leads To Another by The Fixx), and most of all, an over-the-top, bloody, fast-paced, climax…the final scene that jolts you into short breaths, after a long, long buildup filled with the falsity that you psych yourself out over. Oh yes, they’re good. They’re real good.
Even if you aren’t scared, don’t let your 21st century mind fool you. This is how horror films were in their hayday, a very one-dimensional, methodically constructed plot that wasn’t garbled by the present sophistications of cell phones, internet, and that throng of sickly, torturous special effects required in movies as we see them today. No, this was the mark of all things vulnerable in your backyard, at your summer camps, at the jobs you dreaded having, the vacations you hoped would be fun, the school dances, the sleepovers, the holidays, and the Friday nights out. Those films were all about something frantically unknown and menacing in an every day place.