Cash-strapped college student Samantha has been hired to “babysit” an elderly woman at an Addams Family-like house in the country. When the creepy married couple that hired her goes out for the evening, having agreed to pay $400 for her service – and having scrutinized her like a bug in a jar – Samantha and “mother” are left alone in the house.
When Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) sits down to listen to her Walkman (this is the 1980s), we know there is someone else in the house, someone neither Samantha nor the audience have yet seen. When a curtain in the living-room corner seems to billow just a bit, was it caused by Samantha’s elderly charge … or by the wind? Is that Samantha’s moving shadow on the wall in an upstairs hallway, or someone else’s? And why is it taking so long for the pizza guy to deliver her medium-sized pepperoni?
Writer-director Ti West says he is a fan of Kubrick and early Polanski films, and it shows in this movie. West’s filmmaking harkens back to the basics: gradual buildup of tension, extended periods when the only things that “happen” are floorboards that creak, faucets that leak, clocks that tick, and shadows that move. It’s amazing how effective these techniques still are; they are as chilling in Devil as they were in Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby or in Kubrick’s The Shining.
The House of the Devil stumbles a bit at its climax, when West abandons atmospheric chills in favor of more conventional horror-movie histrionics. But in an age when most horror fans think that they’ve seen it all, this movie proves that what used to scare us can still do the job. Grade: B+
Director: Ti West Cast: Jocelin Donahue, Tom Noonan, Mary Woronov, Greta Gerwig, AJ Bowen, Dee Wallace, Heather Robb, Brenda Cooney, Danielle Noe Release: 2009
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