THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL. Ti West’s Horror Movie Is Not Just a Cheap Imitation

Ti West’s film (responsible for directing, writing, and editing) doesn’t immediately turn into a satanic horror, as one might think.

Krzysztof Walecki

10 September 2023

There is something ironic in the fact that the worst nightmares befall horror movie characters at the moment of their economic hardship, specifically when a potential way out appears on the horizon like a light at the end of the tunnel. Marion Crane steals tens of thousands of dollars to improve her financial situation but instead ends up brutally murdered in the shower at Norman Bates’s motel. The Lutz family begins to face financial troubles after moving into the Amityville house, before the father of the family goes on a murderous rampage. Poverty forces a young boy, Fool, to participate in a robbery at a wealthy couple’s house, only to discover deformed people guarding the treasures under the stairs. In bankrupt Detroit, a blind veteran hunts down thieves dreaming of a better life. Therefore, it’s not surprising that the main character of The House of the Devil, Samantha (Sam), decides to become a babysitter for one night for four times the usual pay, despite all signs pointing to trouble.

The girl needs the money to pay for her newly rented house, which is the ideal alternative to the dorm room she currently lives in. So when the opportunity arises to earn some cash, Sam doesn’t hesitate for long and heads to the designated address. However, her new employer explains that he lied in the advertisement, and there is no child; instead, he needs her to care for his wife. Samantha is unsettled by her benefactor’s eccentric behavior and the offer she receives, but she eventually accepts, especially when the man takes out more money from his wallet. Her friend voices her concerns, recognizing the strangeness and potential danger of the situation.

Samantha accepts the offer, but Ti West’s film (responsible for directing, writing, and editing) doesn’t immediately turn into a satanic horror, as one might think from the title and the initial information about belief in Satan cults in the 1980s. The director is not particularly interested in the devil or his followers; rather, it serves as a simple explanation of what the girl will have to deal with later in the evening. Before that, we will watch her wandering around the house, unaware of the danger (unlike the audience, who witnesses a gruesome murder shortly after Sam accepts the offer to stay the night), more concerned that her friend is not answering her calls than with a sense of the situation’s unnaturalness. Thus, the main driving force of The House of the Devil becomes the anticipation of the nightmare and the path that leads to it.

West is a patient filmmaker. Not only do we wait a long time for any horror attractions in terms of the plot – aside from the mysterious process of getting the job – but the director’s cinematic language also requires viewers to pay close attention and be patient. The length of shots often exceeds several seconds, which is an eternity in contemporary cinema, but it helps immerse us in Sam’s situation, as she is forced to spend several hours in a stranger’s house with practically no purpose, as it is hard to call taking care of someone locked in their room. However, the leisurely pace of the whole film also harks back to West’s beloved horror films from the 1970s and 1980s. The director clearly pays homage to that era with the film’s visual texture, graininess achieved by shooting on 16mm film, the use of zoom in the camera instead of tracking shots, music taken directly from or inspired by that time, and finally, placing the action of the film in that period. All these elements create an authentic feeling of watching a film made during that time, which is further confirmed when the film’s title appears on the screen, written in large yellow font with the film’s release year in Roman numerals underneath.

Jocelin Donahue, with her dark eyes, perfectly fits into the main role, turning Sam into something like Laurie Strode’s heir from Halloween, not only because both of them take care of a child on a very dangerous night. They share the same modesty and courage, especially when they finally come face to face with evil. Even if Samantha makes a fatal mistake at the very beginning by accepting the temporary job, we never get the feeling that her character is acting foolishly. Desperation is a driving force in many horror stories, which is not a criticism. Donahue also looks incredibly natural in the period costume, which would later be used by the creators of Insidious 2 and The Frontier. In the former, the actress appears in flashback scenes set in the 1980s, and in the latter, a retro crime film, she has the opportunity to outwit a gang of robbers and present herself in a very stylish outfit, straight out of an earlier decade.

West didn’t choose his supporting actors randomly, clearly aiming for their “scary” résumés. Tom Noonan, memorable for his role as Francis Dolarhyde in Michael Mann’s Red Dragon, but also as a psychopathic villain in RoboCop 2 and Last Action Hero, plays Mr. Ulman, Samantha’s employer. He’s a towering actor who speaks softly and politely, but the underlying tension is felt almost immediately when he appears on the screen. Mary Woronov, who began her career as Andy Warhol’s muse before becoming famous for her roles in Roger Corman’s Death Race 2000 and Paul Bartel’s Eating Raoul, plays his wife. Dee Wallace, known as Elliott’s mother in E.T. but also a star of horror classics like The Hills Have Eyes, Cujo, and Critters, has a small role as the owner of the house Samantha is renting. It’s also worth noting that Samantha’s best friend is played by Greta Gerwig, who was associated with indie cinema at the time, especially for her role in Joe Swanberg’s films, and later became known for directing Lady Bird and Barbie.

The House of the Devil is not just a cheap imitation or a tribute to the cinema that contemporary filmmakers in their thirties and forties grew up with, unable to come up with anything better. Ti West comes closest to the cinema of his colleague Adam Wingard, who also specializes in using tried-and-true old horror movie formulas, but while Wingard likes to play with role reversals, putting everything in an ironic parentheses, West surprisingly adheres strongly to seriousness and the rules of the cinema of that era. The dialogues are credible, the background is realistic, and the horror is strangely unsettling, perhaps because of its simplicity and the way West makes this story believable. This is high praise when a filmmaker finds something fresh and authentic within a genre.

In the same year, the French-Belgian film Amer was released, wonderfully modeled after Italian giallo films, seemingly prioritizing style over substance, but actually expressing the meaning of its story through its style. It’s hard to find a greater contrast when comparing these two films in terms of their expressive means – the American film focuses on realism, sparingly doles out formal attractions, while the European film prefers elaborate visuals and symbolism, attacking the viewer with every frame. However, both films are minimalistic in terms of plot and demonstrate a knowledge of genre conventions, as if the stories they tell were merely a pretext to remind themselves of what old horror cinema looked like. Ti West will later make a decent but unremarkable The Innkeepers and the Western In a Valley of Violence, drawing from B-movie traditions, but The House of the Devil remains his best film. The promise contained in the title will (unfortunately) be fulfilled in the finale, but up to that point, the worst part is simply waiting for the inevitable. Although in West’s case, it should probably be said – the best part.