The 1970s and the 1980s were an unusually fertile period for memorable horror movies, as evidenced by the fact that it’s hard to think of as many movies from more recent decades that truly measure up, although of course there’s been plenty to love in more recent years. Ironically, one of the better horror movies of the past few years is a total homage to the movies of the 1970s and the 1980s.
THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL blends the Satanic-cult trend of the 1970s with the teenagers-in-peril slasher flicks of the early 1980s (which themselves owed plenty to 1974’s BLACK CHRISTMAS and 1978’s HALLOWEEN). It’s very resolutely set in the 1980s, as demonstrated by the logos of the opening titles, the fashions of the characters, and the recognizable pop song “One Thing Leads To Another” by The Fixx, which the protagonist listens to over and over on her Walkman.
The girl, named Samantha and played by Jocelin Donahue, is a college student who answers an ad looking for a babysitter. She accepts the job over the phone, and heads to a remote location to meet her employers. Her friend Megan, played by the since-ubiquitous Greta Gerwig, doesn’t trust the sketchiness of the whole thing, and insists on driving her there.
Let me tell you rookies something that practiced horror fans already know — when you take a babysitting job and Tom Noonan opens the door, don’t think. Back away slowly. And when you see that his wife is played by Mary Woronov, stop backing away so slowly. Just run.
These people want Samantha to watch someone for them while they step out for the evening — Noonan’s character eventually insists it’s his mother — but Samantha never gets to see who she’s supposed to be watching. Well, eventually she does, I guess, but by then it’s way too late. What’s so incredible about this movie is how long it’s able to stretch suspense before revealing anything. For the first hour of this movie, very little incident actually happens. You get to meet this girl, who’s very cute and certainly likable, if quiet, and then you follow her as she accepts this strange job offer, sticking with it far past the point of plausibility. Most of us wouldn’t take that job, no matter how bad we needed the money, especially after we meet those two creeps, most especially once those noises start coming out of the attic.
No, not much happens for quite a while in THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, but once it does, once that deviltry finally begins, it just starts tumbling out of the movie in a delirium. The climactic scenes of this film are freaky and memorable and thoroughly worth sticking around to see. Your patience will reward you with some truly effective scares. In the meantime, there’s that Tom Noonan performance to chew over.
Tom Noonan is one of my favorite character actors. He played Frankenstein’s Monster in THE MONSTER SQUAD, he brushed against the notoriety he deserves when he played a villain in LAST ACTION HERO, he made brief but memorable appearances in SYNECHDOCHE, NEW YORK and TV’s Louie, and probably most famously, he made a pivotal cameo in Michael Mann’s HEAT (as the disabled mastermind who feeds De Niro’s crew their bank jobs) and portrayed one of the most unnerving movie monsters ever in Mann’s 1986 cult classic, MANHUNTER. Noonan has a tall, lanky frame that puts him in a position to loom over even the most strapping movie stars, yet he has a totally incongruous way about him, a soft, almost sleepy voice that calms even if the character he’s playing is up to terrible things. With his casting in THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, it almost — almost — is understandable that Samantha trusts him initially and decides to enter his home, even though we all know that the movie is called THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL and eventually we’re going to have to see why. If you’re a Tom Noonan fan, you know right away what’s up (there’s a history behind his casting), and if this is the first time you’re seeing him, you’re probably even more suspicious.
But even still, THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL will probably blindside you. Ever seen THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE? Remember Leatherface’s first appearance? The way that the girl ventures into that awful house, against all instincts, and wanders around for a seemingly interminable moment until her killer appears, totally inevitably yet totally suddenly? THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL is like that moment, sustained for the entire length of a feature film. It’s a terrific genre exercise, and absolutely worth watching no matter how much of it you think I’ve given away.
THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL is playing at midnight at New York City’s IFC Center.
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