Satanists and Suspense in The House of the Devil

[The following was written by both of us as part of the Final Girl Film Club; go check them out. Also note that spoilers are abundant, like demonic rituals on the night of a lunar eclipse.]


Andreas:

The suspense is killing me. I hope it lasts. —Gwendolyn, The Importance of Being Earnest

Pity the poor babysitter. Half the time, she’s strung out on LSD and roasts the baby like a Christmas ham; the rest of the time, she’s harassed by psychos calling from inside the house. Or else she dies, and nobody tells mom about it. Or she’s being prepped, again like a Christmas ham, for the satanic rite to end all satanic rites. That last scenario is the crux of Ti West’s The House of the Devil, a film that revels in spinning mundane straw into horror gold. Most movies about unsuspecting young women and satanist covens descend quickly into a slew of impalements and beheadings. West gives us a suspenseful status quo, then holds it, and holds it, and holds it, ratcheting our anxiety up higher with each phone call or mention of an eclipse. Explicit clues as to what’s really going on are sparse, especially for poor Samantha (Jocelin Donahue), our plucky and lovable heroine; in short, it’s one of the most thrilling, titillating, and fun horror movies of the past decade.

One of The House of the Devil‘s major assets is its simplicity. Both its title and plot feel generic, as if they were copied from the 1980s Horror Pastiche Handbook, but West breathes new life into them. And not in a creepy voodoo way, either. No, he does it more in a “this man is one of the most innovative writer/directors currently working in horror” way. House is just about Samantha, a cash-strapped college girl who gives babysitting a shot. When the situation gets weird – i.e., the old couple hiring her are ambiguously creepy motherfuckers, and there’s no baby – her friend Megan (Greta Gerwig) recommends that she leave, but alas, the prospect of paying for one month’s rent is just too tempting. The rest of the film is just Samantha biding her time… until, as it must, the coven of satanists drugs her for a bloody, pentagram-filled human sacrifice.

So, at least superficially, House has all the earmarks of a typical slasher movie or urban legend: a girl, a house, and the devil. But it’s also one of the least crass, most subtle variations ever done on those themes. Take the first portion of the movie, for example. Not much happens: Samantha confirms her new living place, goes jogging, calls about the babysitting job, waits around, meets with Megan for pizza, etc. But it’s compelling, mostly because West squeezes in so much dense observational detail. Yes, detail about the ’80s (a decade I didn’t live through) but also just detail about normal, stressful college life. It’s in the frostiness and desolation of the campus in the morning. It’s in the way Samantha lounges around on the front steps of the student center. And it’s in her getting sexiled, as well as her mildly contentious relationship with her roommate. It all forms the very realistic groundwork for the heebie-jeebies that fill the rest of the movie.

So in addition to its simplicity, one of House‘s greatest virtues is its plausibility. And for a movie whose plot is basically Halloween crossed with Rosemary’s Baby, that’s saying something. Just by knowing the movie’s title, we expect bad shit to go down, so West engages in the most economical, masterful kinds of suggestion. A desperate voice on a pay phone takes on a sinister pall. And when that voice belongs to the seemingly harmless (maybe too harmless) Mr. Ulman, to whose secluded house1 the girls journey, we infer something sinister about the whole gosh-darn situation. Of course, objectively weird remarks like “I promise to make this as painless for you as possible” don’t exactly help his case. But the age difference factors in here, too: on the surface, Mr. Ulman and his wife (played by cult film mainstay/total fox Mary Woronov) just feel a little, you know, out of touch, unable to relate to today’s youth. So maybe that‘s why he reminds Samantha about ordering pizza several times. And it’s not because the pizza’s actually going to drug her in time for the sacrifice. Maybe?

The bulk of the film, in which Samantha mucks around the house trying not to get bored, is pure genius. In its immaculate subtlety, it’s like Robert Wise’s The Haunting times infinity. Part of the reason is that Samantha doesn’t know her movie is called The House of the Devil, and we do, so of course we’re going to yell, “Don’t go up there! Get out of that house!” to the consternation of our sleeping neighbors. She’s not stupid; she knows she was taking a risk by staying there, as she admits to Megan. But she seriously does need the money, and nothing about the deal conclusively says, “You’re going to get blood poured on you through a goat skull.” It says something more like, “This old couple is kind of odd, and they shouldn’t have lied, but that’s a lot of money.” That’s why this movie is great horror: it manages to have a smart, interesting female lead and still lead her into a dangerous, yet terrifyingly reasonable situation.

Unlike us, Samantha doesn’t know that Megan is dead, but she does suspect that something‘s up. However, since she has no concrete evidence,2 she just thinks she’s losing it, tells herself to “get a grip,” and sits back down to watch TV. Until, say, she hears some weird noises… and the cycle starts all over again. This is a movie about irrational fear. And since it keeps everything at such a low register, the smallest frights feel exaggerated – like the off-putting cadence of the pizza man’s voice (“See you in thirty…”), or the shots that peek into the house through the window, or worst/best of all, the hair in the bathtub. It’s a sublimely disturbing moment would feel at home in Psycho, when Lila Crane is rummaging through Norman’s childhood possessions. Samantha looks into the bathtub, gasps, and after mere seconds of agonizingly sustained curiosity, it’s revealed: numerous clumps of dark hair. It’s so much less gory than what we’d expect, but it’s so jarring and unexpected that, in the long run, it’s way scarier than a hacked-off limb could ever hope to be.

After all of these minor incidents and their chilling implications, I won’t deny that the climax is something of a let-down. But it’s necessary, as well as intensely scary. I don’t really know who/what that goat person was, but the makeup creates just the right blend of a corny urban legend-type satanic priest(ess?) and a “holy shit!” materialization of all the anxiety we’ve been experiencing. And it’s hard not to feel Samantha’s pain as those diabolic snippets flash through her poor head. Granted, we’ve got some shakycam, and Samantha dispatches those satanists with remarkable ease, but let’s not split Mary Woronov’s creepy hairs here. It’s a fitting culmination to all that accelerating unease, finally releasing the tension in one quick and amazingly gory burst. It’s almost so gory as to be a parody of traditional horror climaxes, one that puts the rest of the movie’s menacingly quiet style in perspective.

Whatever the purpose, it’s a satisfying grand finale, leading in to the film’s coup de grace: the hospital scene. Again it’s menacingly quiet, we’re privy to some suggestive reports about the moon, and a nurse utters that crushing last line: “You’re going to be just fine. Both of you…” After that, what is there to say? I’d prefer not to discuss the bleak implications, and instead to say that The House of the Devil is the movie to show that silly friend of yours who whines, “Horror movies are nothing but stupid teenagers getting stabbed to death!”3 It’s a very functional argument for the power of suggestion; it’s an eerie depiction of how hard it is to get rent money; it’s just a great horror movie overall. The House of the Devil is a house of awesome, and with that, I turn it over to Ashley.

Ashley:

I don’t know if I’ve ever sympathized so much with a horror movie heroine as much as I do with Samantha from The House of the Devil. I am pretty much in the same situation she is; desperate college student with next to no money trying to find a place to live. If some old couple said they needed a sitter for their mother right now and they offered me $400 I’d be all over that shit, even if the situation was kinda weird. Sam’s desperation is very real and relatable and she feels like a very real girl. This movie, with all of its slow-burning horror and sluggish pace, would just not work without the amazing cast. Everyone, even the landlady who is in the movie for about five minutes, feels real and the performances are amazing. For me, this film works because I really honestly give a shit about the characters and am emotionally invested in what happens to them.

Samantha, as far as horror film heroines goes, is definitely comparable to Jamie Lee Curtis’ Lori from Halloween (who just happens to be one of the best Final Girls in horror). They are both calm, intelligent girls who are victims of circumstance: Lori just happens to be babysitting in the town where Michael runs amok (and also just happens to be his sister) and Samantha is a cash-strapped teenager in a desperate situation who takes a chance on a ‘babysitting’ job. When Megan flips her shit (like a real friend would; theirs is one of the best friendships ever committed to a horror film) and tells Sam that she’s stupid for sticking around after all the weirdness is revealed, we are torn. We know that Megan is right because we know that this is a horror movie but it’s not like Sam, who doesn’t know she’s in a horror movie, is making a completely outrageous decision that is beyond belief. She’s a smart gal in a weird situation but we don’t fault her for it because it’s understandable.

Since Andreas did an excellent job with plot summary/analysis, I want to focus more on isolated incidents of terror/outright creepiness. There are probably three or four major shocks in this film (if you’re excluding the straight-forward horror climax, which I am) depending on how you look at it: Megan’s death, the bodies on the other side of the door, the hair in the bathtub and the last line of the film. But outside of those shocks the film is peppered with such clever, suggestive dialogue and foreshadowing, it makes for a very satisfying cinematic experience. Megan, who is probably one of the best characters EVER (Andreas says he wants a Megan-centric prequel and I have to agree with him), has some of the best lines including “What if the kid’s from hell?” in reference to the babysitting job. We as the audience take note of that because we know the title of the film, maybe even laugh at it; it seems like a moot point later when we learn that there is no child for Sam to babysit. But then it comes back to haunt us with the final revelation of the film: the kid is from hell.

Megan is also a very well-done example of Death By Genre Savviness; she’s not so snarkily self-aware as some Genre Savvy characters but she knows what’s up. She knows a fucked up situation when she sees it and she states it flat-out:

Sam: It’s $400! For four hours? This equals first months rent and then some! It’s too good to be true.

Megan: Did you ever think it is too good to be true?

Sam: Megan, please. I need the money.

Megan: It’s so stupid. It’s so stupid. I’m so mad at you.

This exchange not only reflects Megan’s genre savviness and Sam’s desperation but also reinforces the friendship between these two. And it makes the next scene all the more jarring and horrible. I am firmly of the opinion that “Are you not the babysitter?” has the potential to go down as one of the greatest, creepiest horror lines ever uttered on film. It could be the new “They’re here” or “Come play with us”. The scene is set: creepy cemetery, nervously smoking a cigarette, random guy with a beard pops the fuck out of nowhere. And Megan’s Death By Genre Savviness lines continue even then: “I almost died. I almost had a heart attack and died.” He doesn’t seem too threatening other than the fact that he’s in the cemetery for no good reason and is trying to make small-talk. The way that line is worded is so odd: he could have said, “Are you the babysitter?” but no, it’s “Are you not the babysitter?” The thing that really gets me about this scene is that it’s NEVER explained in full detail. What part of their Satanist plan included him waiting in the cemetery? Was it to make sure, if their last resort girl decided to bail, that she wouldn’t get away? What was he supposed to do if she had been the babysitter? These questions are never answered and all we’re left with is Megan’s face splattered against the windshield.

Other than Megan and obviously Sam, one of the most important characters in this film is Mr. Ulman. This character is so intensely interesting to me (I told Andreas that I wanted a prequel about Megan and Mr. Ulman; that could totally work, right?) because, again, he doesn’t seem that threatening. He’s odd, yeah, but he doesn’t seem like he would hurt you. He doesn’t even seem like he could hurt you. His desperation to find a sitter for ‘mother’ seems very sad and driven by his wife (whom he sometimes appears to be afraid of) and is a direct parallel to Sam’s desperation. She’s desperate for cash, he’s desperate for her to stay. The first time we hear Mr. Ulman (after he somehow calls Sam back on the payphone she just called him from), his voice is so soft, gentle and yet somehow implicitly creepy. I think that a lot of the things that I perceived as creepy in this film, seemed that way because I knew this all had to part of a Satanist plot; it all seemed way too normal and that was really, really off-putting. The first time we see Mr. Ulman is even stranger; it’s framed in such away that the girls gaze up at him and his face is cut off from view. Again, extremely off-putting.

The horror of this film is deeply entrenched in the concept of Nothing is Scarier: the idea that the building tension and expectation of seeing something creates a more palpable horror than actually showing us the blood/monster/whatever. And it fucking works, man. There were so many scenes where it’s just a static, unmoving shot; Sam is walking around, in and out of frame and we’re just sitting here waiting for something to happen, for something to move, for someone or something to come into frame unseen by Sam but it never happens.We never get that release of adrenaline and so we have tension building until it feels like it’s about to snap. The few moments we do get are all the more powerful because of this. When Sam is outside the door that she almost opens and is speaking through to the nonexistent ‘mother’4, we’re finally treated(?) to something gruesome. And it’s very jarring because we’ve spent the last 50 minutes being teased and wound up by the atmosphere and style of the film.

As an homage to the ’80s, this film is top-notch. I was born at the very tail end of that decade but I watched many ’80s horror films and was then bombarded with the recent deluge of nauseating ’80s nostalgia, throwback wank-fests that are currently popular. Why we as a society feel so attached cinematically to this decade is beyond me because it wasn’t a very stellar decade  for film, especially compared to the ’70s (this is just generally speaking of course; there are a some very good and/or fun films from the ’80s, as with any decade). A lot of these throwback homages that we see tend to glorify some of the dumber aspects of the decade. The House of the Devil captures the nostalgia perfectly without having to be kitschy or garish or completely in your face about it like it’s yelling “REMEMBER THE ’80s, WEREN’T THEY AWESOME?!” As noted by Scott Tobias in The AV Club’s New Cult Canon:

…West evokes ’80s horror while making a movie that’s infinitely more skillful than the ones he’s referencing. And that’s what nostalgia, at its best, can accomplish: It makes our memories sweeter and more perfect than our actual experiences at the time…Because as much as people like myself—and I’m sure West, too—like to reminiscence about our formative slasher-movie days, the reality was hours of precious time squandered on artless, exploitative, retrograde garbage. The House Of The Devil gives at least 96 of those minutes back, with interest.

The House of the Devil is damn near perfect, especially if you’re not a fan of the typical Kill ‘Em All slasher flicks. It moves slowly but with purpose and slowly builds you up; by the time we get to the (somewhat ridiculous) climax, it hardly matters that this isn’t as scary as what we’ve been watching because we’re finally getting the release of tension that we’ve been denied for most of the film. And there must be something said for a film that’s bloodiest part, isn’t nearly as terrifying as the 80 or so minutes of bloodless tension we’ve been served.

1 (of the Devil)

2 I mean, those photos in the closet sure are ominous, and so is Megan’s failure to answer her phone, but (for Samantha, at least) they hardly prove that anything’s going on.

3 Although it can be fun to watch stupid teenagers getting stabbed to death.

4 The idea of the mother not even existing completely freaks me out and brings up a lot of unanswered questions, the most prevalent being why did they even feel the need to tell her that it wasn’t a babysitting job? Why not just lie and say “The baby will sleep throughout the night, you won’t even need to check on it”? And I think the answer to that question, other than the Ulmans are just effing weird, is that if they had done that we wouldn’t have had the scene where Mr. Ulman tells Sam the ‘truth’, which is a very good, important scene and it sets up the rest of the film for us.

4 Comments

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4 responses to “Satanists and Suspense in The House of the Devil

  1. The whole mother thing…maybe if they said it was a baby, or a kid, they ddidn’t want to risk Sam going in to check anyway (to make sure it hadn’t, like, died or something. I mean, I’d do that).

    The bloody part was a bit boring, though the penultimate scene was pretty good. What really scared me, besides Megan (someone had already told me how that was gonna turn out, but it still surprised me, the swiftness of the whole thing) was when the camera panned to reveal the bodies of the family that lived there. I mean, the fact that it was a relatively rich couple and their pre/pubescent son, I kind of wish their gruesome deaths would’ve been its own movie, just so I could compare it to Funny Games.

  2. The mother was there the whole time, bumping around in the attic.. She was the creepy-looking one who actually conducted the ritual.

    • Ashley

      When I first watched it I thought that that might have been the ‘mother’; but then I thought it was just some elder Satanist that they keep in the attic, not an actual biological mother of either of the Ulmans. Either way, I think we can all agree that that shit is creepy.

      • Ah, okay. I see what you mean now, though I don’t think there’s actually anything in the text to support that she’s anything other than Ullman’s momma. The details about what the Ullmans are up to are kept so deliciously vague that it’s certainly open to interpretation, though.

        But, yeah, that face is definitely not one you want to see when you’re bound to the floor in the middle of a blood pentagram and Tom! Effing! Noonan! is lolling around ecstatically in black robe.

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