In a film week otherwise stuffed with romcoms, cute kids and Thomas Turgoose in his underpants, you choose the horror option, don't you? There's always something startling and envelope-pushing to be found in the world of dismemberment and zombies. And The House of the Devil comes highly recommended. No less an authority than Slasherfilm.com calls it "the best horror film of the year". The top horror website Bloodydisgusting.com gave it four stars, and you can't argue with that. The only signs of there being something odd about it are in the poster. One is the title. (When was the last time a horror movie name-checked Satan? 1972?) The other is the blood dripping off the words and down over the credits. In the Hammer Films heyday of the late 1960s, the poster to every single horror movie featured similar bloodstained lettering. Just how retro was this going to be?
The answer is: very. Director Ti West is a man addicted to old-style shockers from 30-plus years ago. His first feature, The Roost (2005), concerned a quartet of pals, en route to a wedding, who find themselves stranded in a barn and attacked by vampire bats that turn them into zombies. It was crass but effective, and it made use of a barn that once featured in Hitchcock's Marnie – a little homage to the master of shock tactics. West's debut was praised by Eli Roth, director of the repellent Hostel movies, as "a creepy, old-fashioned Eighties sleepover movie". Roth himself made the slasher movie Cabin Fever, and West's third film was a sequel, Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever, so there's clearly a lot of mutual admiration between them. Now Mr West has gone for broke and made a horror film so buried in the 1960s, you practically expect Peter Cushing to turn up in it.
The story is actually set in 1983, long before mobile phones made it easier to handle the ordeal of spending the night in a spooky old house. The heroine Samantha Hughes (Jocelin Donahue) is a skinny student with a permanently red nose and a room-mate who's always performing the blanket hornpipe with gentlemen callers. Sam must raise the cash to put a deposit on a flat of her own. Answering a small ad for a babysitter, she encounters the mysterious Mr Ulman (Tom Noonan) a posh-voiced old beanpole in a Sigmund Freud beard. He explains that there isn't actually any baby to sit; he needs someone to stay home with his elderly mother upstairs, while he and his witchy wife go carousing.
Despite his alarming way of putting things ("I'm in dire need of somebody tonight"; "I promise to make this as painless for you as possible"), the warnings of her best friend Megan (Greta Gerwig) and the imminence of a lunar eclipse, Sam agrees and settles in for a fright night at the Ulmans' clapboard mansion.
She's a very restless kind of person. She sits and fidgets, tries to watch TV (the only channel is showing Night of the Living Dead from 1968), dances to music from her cassette recorder and phones for pepperoni pizza. And we wait with her, for something to happen. Outside, in the lunar-eclipse darkness, a girl is offhandedly shot dead in a car. But inside the house, we get only a symphony of creaking floorboards, and a sequence of vertiginous camera angles. West is addicted to minatory camera shots of his leading lady from below, pointless zoom-ins on running water – and bird's-eye-view shots of her anxious progress around the house's creepy rooms, as if she were being watched by an unseen murderer. References to Psycho (1960) abound – there's even a nasty discovery behind a shower curtain – soundtracked by Bernard Hermann-style music. But after an hour of exposition and set-up, of what-was-that-noise? and that-telephone-scared-the-life-outta-me moments, we rather wish the director would stop teasing us.
Then, just as you're nodding off, slam-BANG, the film bursts into revolting life. There's blood and gore, and people staked out on a pentacle (just like in The Devil Rides Out, 1968). Poor Sam finds herself locked into a ritual sacrifice with a goat's skull, and is told she is The Chosen One, but she escapes, gets herself a knife from the kitchen knife-block and starts to take revenge ... The final scene, in a hospital clinic, contains a cool narrative shock for anyone too young to have seen Rosemary's Baby in 1968.
When Ti West gets hot and gory, believe me, he gets real hot and gory: there are some gross moments here, including eye-gouging, throat-slashing and other assorted carnage. But how interesting that a disciple of Eli Roth should concentrate more on scaring his audience with creaks, nudges and camera movements than with balls-out Grand Guignol. The House of the Devil is an intriguingly old-fashioned production from a young director fruitfully obsessed with the horrible past.