Writer-director-editor Ti West's The House of the Devil is a pastiche of and homage to early-1980s horror flicks (think post-Halloween and pre-Nightmare on Elm Street) and uses its lo-tech tools to create something that's startling beautiful in its own funky way. Unlike, say, last fall's Black Dynamite, whose dead-on simulation of blaxploitation tropes was only amusing for about 20 minutes before wearing out its welcome, Devil brings it all back home.
Sure, West is working within the same narrow genre constraints of all those anonymous hacks who routinely churned out B- and C-grade fright-movie knock-offs to satisfy the pre-VHS era's insatiable drive-in and grindhouse audiences. Yet by kicking it up a notch (or 12) by virtue of sheer craftsmanship and canny stylistic bravura, West has made a film that "resembles" vintage crapfests like He Knows You're Alone without ever becoming remotely crappy itself. That he manages to pull it off without mocking or even winking at his sources of inspiration is miraculous in this post-ironic era.
West's background in DIY independent cinema (he's more artiste than careerist) might explain why his mise-en-scene is nearly as fetishistic and labor-intensive as your typical Wes Anderson joint. Although every detail feels unerringly right (the period hairdos, clothes and jump cuts for starters), the movie's lack of wink-wink, nudge-nudge quotation marks insures that there are no distractions to get in the way of West's enviable knack for spinning a good yarn.
Cash-strapped college sophomore Sam (doe-eyed beauty Jocelin Donahue) reluctantly accepts a babysitting gig for a strange couple (the perfectly cast Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov) in their spooky old house in the woods. The fact that there's no actual baby there should have been Sam's first tip-off to run for the hills. But she really needs the money, and best friend Megan (mumblecore siren Greta Gerwig) has promised to keep her company. Satanists, human sacrifices and Rosemary's scion himself eventually figure into the plot, and West skillfully maintains the tension from start to (near) finish. If the build-up is ultimately more satisfying than the "saw-that-coming-a-mile-away" pay-off, so be it (that's probably why I'm not giving it an extra half-star). There's still more shivery suspense and mounting dread in the first two-thirds of this film than in any horror movie in recent memory.
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.