I was unimpressed by “The House of the Devil” because I think it missed the point entirely.
For those unfamiliar, “Devil” is a throwback to late-’70s / early-’80s American horror. Samantha (Jocelin Donahue), a lone girl, takes a babysitting job for a mysterious man, Mr. Ulman (Tom Noonan) in his large, odd mansion. The job is on the night of the eclipse. I’m sure you guessed it already, but the house is full of satanists using the eclipse to bring back their dark God, and Samantha is their choice incubator. This is fine. What didn’t work for me is that I feel like writer / director Ti West missed the mark in two ways: technique and moral timeliness.
So, “The House of the Devil” was filmed with great pains taken to imitate the character of that era of classic Horror. OK: 16mm film, retro credits, retro technology, classic soundtrack. These are great. They look nice. but the story itself moves glacially, with build and build and build until the crescendo of violence consisting of almost unbelievably difficult-to-follow quick cuts and edits that don’t really feel genuine to the era. I watched quite a lot of horror from the ’70s and ’80s for this project, and they’re captured in spirit but … it never feels accurate to those movies. It comes across as an odd mishmash of modern and retro sensibilities that don’t really work.
It doesn’t feel like the good movies from this era.
I’ve pretty consistently defended trash throughout this project, but I think trash becomes special because of its historical context and influence, which feeds into my second problem with “The House of the Devil”: It never really captures the morality and weirdness of its era because it’s only translating fears from the ’70s in material way. Satanism as a source of evil is a material fear, now, but in the ’70s and ’80s you could still create movies where it was a legitimate spiritual fear. West translates the visuals but not the substance of it. The result is that it feels almost tongue-in-cheek; he never takes the time to wallow in it or build up or play with genuine nervousness about Satanism or alternative religion.
When you watch a movie like, say, “Rosemary’s Baby,” or “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” you’re also watching — transferred through time — real mental spaces and actual fears from their respective eras. Technique can be recreated, but tone and substance is much more difficult. “The House of the Devil” never engaged me in any real way beyond the warm familiarity created by its retro good looks.