Let’s take a look at some canned nostalgia.
House of the Devil by Ti West first and foremost captures the feel of the 1980s perhaps better than any neo-80s film I have ever seen. The movie feels so much like the movies of that decade a viewer could easily be tricked into believing they had stumbled upon an unknown film from that era.
We follow Samantha, who wants to get out of her dorm, so she agrees to pay for a rental that she cannot afford. Desperate for cash, she takes a rather bizarre babysitting job, but once she arrives at the distant house, it is clear that things aren’t what they seem. Does that story sound more or less familiar? It probably should—there isn’t a lot new to the genre added here.
To categorize this film as a slow burner would be a bit of an understatement. It is nearly 33% through before Samantha even arrives at the Ulman house, and quite a bit longer before anything actually happens. Aside from one violent incident at about forty minutes, I had begun to wonder if the film was just a prank and nothing would happen at all. Honestly, the pacing is simply a little boring. I like a slow burn, but here we just have an oddly fidgety Samantha dancing around the house, ordering pizza, eating before the pizza arrives (one bite), watching TV for a minute, wandering around, and more or less just occupying time. There isn’t enough mystery for the viewer to really buy into this. Sure, we get that the creepy Ulman’s are creepy, and lying, and probably hiding something, but we don’t really care. Everything is so heavy-handed there can be no surprise in anything.
The last fifteen or so minutes we actually do get some insanity, but even this seemed a little banal after such a sluggish buildup. Perhaps most obnoxiously is that there isn’t anything inherently wrong with the film. The acting is fine, the setting is fine, the directing is fine, the lighting is okay, the music is great, but something just doesn’t ring for me. This one suffer the most from the empty story that doesn’t give you as the viewer enough to really grab onto. Some cool shots and slowly unravelling mystery don’t work when both my wife and I called out most of the twists at the first hint.
The concept of the film is cool, and there is clear competency in the craft, but we need more than that. 1980s horror aren’t stylized enough to have a style-over-substance argument on their behalf. Maybe humor would have helped? The film rejects all irony or self-awareness, which conceptually sounds awesome. (As much as I do like Cabin in The Woods we don’t need every horror film to be meta-postmodern). I like Ti West, and he can create interesting characters, but I would rather see these characters in more compelling stories. His other work, The Sacrament holds together a bit better than this one. For fans of 1980s horror, this will feel familiar, but add nothing new.