The House of the Devil

Time Out New York Project: Issue #735, October 29-November 4, 2009


Dir. Ti West. 2009. R. 95mins. Jocelin Donahue, Tom Noonan, Mary Woronov.

Ti West’s slow-burn horror movie is cast with numerous cult icons, past and present—from Cujo mom Dee Wallace to mumblecore muse Greta Gerwig. The film’s grainy textures make it seem like a found object from the locale and era (a slasher-flick version of an American college town circa the 1980s) that it re-creates with loving fidelity. But West isn’t having a nostalgic laugh, plopping period trappings onscreen for their remember-those-days recall value. He’s out for something more timeless: to induce paralyzing fear.

College student Samantha (Donahue) is in desperate need of rent money. So she answers a babysitting ad that takes her—on the night of an eclipse, no less—to an old, dark house owned by the Karloff-like Mr. Ulman (Noonan, who makes a brilliant, half-obscured entrance). Ulman sheepishly explains that Samantha won’t be looking after a child, but after his semi-invalid mother-in-law who, he insists, will be sleeping in her room the whole time. All the girl has to do is hang around downstairs in case of an emergency while Ulman and his morgue-chic wife (Woronov) go out for the evening—$400 for four hours of work.

Despite her reservations (and since this is the age of Reaganomics), money wins out. Samantha’s soon moving freely and curiously around the house, watching the Late Show, jumping at shadows and slowly uncovering a much more sinister plot. When the Karo syrup finally hits the fan, the film loses its footing some, but only because no concrete explanations could possibly do justice to West’s expert buildup. He’s far more adept at and interested in sustaining an unrelentingly ominous mood than in executing the genre-required spook shocks.—Keith Uhlich