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Movies You Might Have Missed: Ti West’s The House of the Devil

The satanic thriller featuring Greta Gerwig, which was shot in just 18 days, is a suspenseful treat with a truly horrific ending

Darren Richman
Wednesday 14 February 2018 16:00 GMT
Greta Gerwig features in Ti West's 'The House of the Devil' (2009)
Greta Gerwig features in Ti West's 'The House of the Devil' (2009)

Greta Gerwig’s solo directorial debut, Lady Bird, has seen her transformed from the darling of the mumblecore movement into a bona fide awards contender. Her magnetic performances in collaborations with Noah Baumbach are rightly heralded, but The House of the Devil (2009) is less well known. An effective horror aping the tone of 1980s cinema years before Stranger Things, Ti West’s film is not merely homage but a genuinely suspenseful treat with a truly horrific denouement.

The set-up is simple. The year is 1983 and Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) is a college student low on funds. To earn a bit of extra cash, she takes on a strange babysitting assignment that just happens to coincide with a full lunar eclipse. The house is, naturally, a remote mansion and Samantha gets driven there by her best friend, Megan (Gerwig). The pair are greeted by Mr Ulman and his wife (Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov).

To say too much about what happens next would ruin the fun, but it’s no spoiler to reveal that they don’t simply watch television for a few hours, get paid and head home.

In an effort to aid the 1980s feel, West shot on 16mm film and even released a promotional copy of The House of the Devil on VHS in a clamshell box. The cinematography is equally retro with the director having the camera zoom in on characters, eschewing the dolly shots more common today. As with the classics of the genre, West’s film is at its best when it’s ambiguous. Like Psycho, Jaws or The Blair Witch Project, the longer we are in the dark the better, because no amount of horror depicted on screen can match the darkest recesses of our imaginations. This is the reason Rosemary’s Baby is scarier than Saw.

The film was shot in just 18 days and most of the crew came from Connecticut, the location of the shoot, in a bid to keep the budget under a million dollars. Like Fargo, this purports to be based on actual events although the veracity of such a claim is highly debatable.

West wrote, directed and edited the picture and realised, like Alfred Hitchcock, that suspense is all about anticipation. The shocking conclusion will be too much for some, but this is a perfectly paced, intelligent chiller that will delight fans of the genre who claim they don’t make them like they used to.

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