Ti West’s formal exercise in the babysitter-in-distress genre is, alas, little more than that, but it’s fascinatingly watchable in a kind of academic way. All the elements are in place: an oblivious college student (played by Levi’s model Jocelin Donahue), a one-time babysitting gig, a creaky mansion in the middle of nowhere, the house’s creepy residents (Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov – what a cast! — performing mannered line readings), and an unprecedented lunar eclipse – well, the kind that Satanists of all stripes apparently find irresistible, anyway.
West takes the title quite literally, as we follow the curious Samantha, with a faint resemblance to a young Jessica Harper, opening doors and cupboards and drawers and turning on lights. The movie takes its time as she does her explorations for what seems like half an hour, and it’s clearly part of the movie’s conceptual joke; in a sense, the film is indeed about the house. West raises the tension by inserting ominous close-ups of faucets and doorknobs, or positioning Samantha next to open windows; the effect is to keep the audience perpetually on the edge of their seats, and it mostly works until one catches on. It’s something of a long, drawn-out tease, but it’s also in homage to those stalker movies from around 1983.
Which brings us to the movie’s real conceit. The House of the Devil is a clever simulacrum of an early ‘80s direct-to-VHS horror flick: freeze frames during the opening credits, faded colors, a John Carpenter-sounding synth-heavy soundtrack, feathered hair, long zooms, a cameo by Dee Wallace, and – best of all – a scene where Samantha dances through the house, Risky Business-style, to the Fixx’s “One Thing Leads To Another” on her oversized Walkman. The point of all this cleverness isn’t quite clear: perhaps it’s postmodern riffing, or a deliberate ploy to ironically highlight the thinness of the plot. A horror movie in quotation marks.