Impressions: The House of the Devil

The House of the Devil is one of Ti West’s earlier films. It follows the story of Samantha who is desperate to make money when a “too good to be true” job lands in her lap. A four-hour “babysitting” job that will pay her a couple hundred dollars. I have seen this movie a couple of times, and I am still a little uncertain how I feel about it. Perhaps this Impressions will help me as well as anyone who is also undecided.

I will give a quick warning before we get this going. It is rare that I enjoy Satanic horror. It is not my favorite sub-genre, and I am aware that when I do watch a movie along those lines that my experience is a little bit tainted by my personal preferences.

The House of the Devil is set in the early 1980s, and it uses that setting as a major influence over the film itself. It looks a little grainy and uses specific techniques that were popular in horror films in the 70s and 80s. From the opening credits, the nondiegetic music, and even some of the story pacing and development. Megan, who plays Samantha’s best friend, is pretty much the perfect loud out there counterpoint to the soft-spoken responsible Samantha, which is a character we are used to seeing. The story unfolds with a few slightly awkward, but intentionally so, moments that we are used to seeing. A lot about this movie screams “throwback.”

However, it manages to keep itself from being only a throwback movie. It is 70s/80s inspired but is not afraid to go more modern when it needs to. It has a lot more gore than even Satanic movies from that time (compare it to Rosemary’s Baby for instance), it uses a lot more suspense, and fewer jump scares than maybe people are used to it, things of that nature.

It creates a good blend of feeling like you are getting some throwback experience without watching just a throwback movie. It seems like it would be a tough blend, but the movie manages to do it really well. I like that. I like older horror movies, and I like movies that aren’t afraid to embrace that influence. Rob Zombie is noted for this, and while he’s far from my favorite horror director, I appreciate it in his work as well. Ti West doesn’t go as far as Zombie in an attempt to be “throwback,” but it is there and I do give it credit.

The acting is also well done. Joceline Donahue had a rather tough job with this movie because she is not only in almost every scene, but she is in a lot of them alone. Watching Samantha wander around her everyday routine, and later the house, had the risk of being boring. Samantha is actually bored in a lot of the movie, so there is a risk in showing that, that you will bore the audience. It gets close a few times, but there is enough tension, and Joceline is talented enough, that it manages to keep it just reeled in.

The movie builds up to the climax at a good pace. It’s mostly a slow build to the ending climax, but there are enough jump scares, tense moments, and even a few shocks to get us there.

So what’s the problem?

Well… I just don’t know that the climax was enough for me. The climax is good, but a lot is relying on it because the rest of the movie is such a slow climb. This is about the millionth time I have mentioned this, but movies with this development risk a lot because so much depends on the climax.

The first time I watched the movie (and every time since) I find myself less terrified at the end than I really should be. What is happening to Samantha is horrible, there is gore and chases, we finally have a snap after all that tension, but it just didn’t land. It is also so damn fast. We go from Samantha blacking out (minor spoiler) to the end of the movie in about twenty minutes, so I don’t think there was enough time to really feel what was happening with the climax.

So I am stuck. The movie is well acted, there are some great shots throughout, the premise is terrifying, there is a good balance of suspense with enough shocks to get us to the climax, and the climax is good but not great. All of that is a lot of positive with about half of a negative and yet… I can’t say that I love the movie or even really like it. I don’t dislike it, far from it, but I don’t enjoy it either.

I would blame it on the fact that I don’t care for Satanic horror, but it manages to avoid a lot of what I hate about the sub-genre. Sure the plot is what you’d expect from this type of movie, but it’s not so bad or so tropey that it’s a problem. I just think something about this movie, and I don’t click.

So bottom line? My bottom line would probably be to ignore my hesitation and give the movie a watch if you haven’t already. On paper other than having a slightly weaker climax than I would have liked there is really nothing wrong with this movie. People love it, people whose opinions on movies I respect and often agree with in fact. I don’t even dislike the movie. I think for genre fans a lot of you will enjoy the movie and the balance of modern and throwback. If you like Satanic horror it’s probably right up your ally, and Ti West is solid at what he does. I don’t know that I will ever be able to pinpoint precisely what keeps me from liking this movie, and am slightly disappointed that I got to the end of this Impressions with the same problem. It’s a well-done movie that for some reason I don’t personally enjoy, so I say watch it I am most likely wrong.

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