I remember being a young boy in the wilds of Michigan, well before the dead started rising, and hanging out at my friend Bill's house. Back then, HBO was relatively new and they would show just about anything. One of the movies I remember seeing was the cheesy horror flick The House Where Evil Dwells. It was distinctly early-80's in everything from plot to cinematography to the general look. It was rated R, and we were like nerdy rebels, staying up late to watch the gore and the sex and the ghosts. It was an easy time in my life. I like being made to remember easier times in my life, and 2009's throwback The House Of The Devil, while not mind-blowing, pleasantly brought me back to those times.
The House Of The Devil is written and directed by Ti West, and it's safe to say it's a love letter to the low-budget horror offerings of the late 70's-early 80's that didn't pander to the major studios. Back then, it was "here's a plot, let's do a movie" and there was a certain risky charm to that method. The horror films always seemed to be filmed during a perpetual autumn - at least it seemed that way to me. That seemed to give it a shadowy feel, but with the feeling that the air in that fictional town or wherever it took place had a crispness to it. The House Of The Devil scored big with me for that feel.
The movie opens with some foreboding text about unexplained disappearances and Satanic rituals, and we're pretty much told things might not be all that sunny for those involved. A pretty young girl, Samantha (Jocelin Donahue), falls in love with a house but still needs money for the rent, despite being given a break on the price by the landlord (a nice cameo by Dee Wallace). As she walks off with the hope of a new place, there's a title card of the movie in a freeze frame, and we all know I'm a fan of those. And she's wearing a Walkman. Not the slim, barely-there kinds we have now. I'm talking the enormous boxes like the first one I ever had, blasting Asia and Scorpions in my young ears.
Samantha goes ahead with a phone call to a babysitting job for the Ullman Family. Mr. Ullman (Tom Noonan) tells her they'll meet on the university campus, but he never shows. Later, as we're given more clues that an eclipse will soon occur - always a must when a movie deals with dark forces - Samantha talks about her money problems with her friend Megan (Greta Gerwin), who offers to call her father for money. Samantha's just at the end of her rope as she cries in the dorm bathroom.
Later, Mr. Ullman leaves a message for Samantha, and she returns the call. He apologizes profusely and arranges for the babysitting assignment to start immediately that night. Samantha agrees and Megan drives her out to the Ullman's house, a big, old place in the middle of nowhere. Mr. Ullman greets them at the door, and imagine my happiness to see reliable portrayer of soft-spoken creeps, Tom Noonan, playing the part. I can never forget him as Francis Dollarhyde a.k.a. The Tooth Fairy in Manhunter.
Tom Noonan as Mr. Ullman (above) and as Francis Dollarhyde aka The Tooth Fairy in 1986's Manhunter (right)
Mr. Ullman appears urgent and somewhat exacting, along with having an almost regretful air about him. While Megan entertains herself in the other room, Mr. Ullman explains that the babysitting job isn't for a child, but for his wife's mother, who's bedridden in an upstairs bedroom. Samantha is apprehensive, so Mr. Ullman ups the pay and Samantha accepts. Megan is pissed - this is all too weird for her. Samantha defends her decision since she needs the money. Still angry and worried, Megan leaves Samantha to her task.
Megan travels down the driveway, trying to light a cigarette. A strange man, who we come to know as Victor Ullman (A. J. Bowen), offers to light it for her, scaring her. When he asks if she's the babysitter, and she replies that she's not, he shoots her face off - literally - before taking her car.
Back inside, Samantha meets Mrs. Ullman (Mary Woronov), whose every line oozes with uncomfortable relish. The Ullmans finally leave, and give Samantha some cash and a number for a nearby pizza place. Alone, except for the shut-in figure upstairs, Samantha explores the house, giving us some quite exquisite shots of a lonely girl with no idea of the looming danger that we, the viewers, barely recognize at this point.
After dancing around to The Fixx, Samantha breaks a vase and cleans it up, finding photos of a family that is decidedly not the Ullmans standing by the car the Ullmans just drove off in, and in front of the house itself. Victor arrives as a pizza delivery guy shortly thereafter with the pizza that Samantha ordered. At this point, you may want to scream to Samantha not to eat the pizza. She won't hear you.
Getting spooked and hearing strange sounds, Samantha tries to explore further into the house, barely missing the room where the family in the picture is sprawled out, brutally murdered. The pizza turns out to be drugged, and Samantha starts losing grip on her consciousness, but not before seeing a strange hand emerge from the attic.
When she wakes up, it's not in a comfy bed in her new apartment. She's tied to a slab, satanic symbols everywhere. The Ullmans enter, dressed in robes. They're followed by a wizened, ugly little thing that I can only describe as a demonic...uh, demon. Said demon paints symbols on Samantha's belly with blood, then tries to get her to drink from the skull of some strange animal. Let your imagination run wild with what kind of animal, because it may not be from the mortal plane.
Samantha breaks loose and escapes upstairs after giving Victor slight vision problems. Lucio Fulci would have been honored. She makes it into the kitchen, tripping over Megan's faceless body. Armed with a knife, she manages to cut Victor's throat before Mrs. Ullman catches up with her in a bedroom. Samantha gets away from the crazy woman by stabbing her in the back while she admires the lunar eclipse. Among flashes of a severe tummy ache and leering demonic faces, she runs out of the house, with Mr. Ullman not far behind. He pursues her to a cemetery, telling her that Satan will arrive when the eclipse ends. With no choice in her mind as she figures it out, Samantha fires a bullet into her own head.
But it ain't over, folks. Samantha wakes up in a hospital to a nurse's "comforting" words that she and the baby will make a full recovery.
That right there provides enough creep factor for your evening. The movie ends, but we know the story doesn't. In fact, if this is a parallel world, I don't want to go there, thank you very much. Has that kind of Prince of Darkness-ish sense of "something's coming and you can't do anything about it."
Like I said, I wasn't blown out of the water by House of the Devil, but that's not to say I didn't like it. The atmosphere, the slow burn sense of danger, and the cinematography were stellar. It truly was a throwback to the old low-budget who-cares-how-wild-this-plot-is movies made in the early 80's. We don't see a lot of the carnage that has happened (the Ullmans disposing of and replacing the family who really lived in the house) and that is about to happen (hello, the girl has a Satan in her belly). Like many great forms of entertainment, our minds fill in the blanks. Performances that stick out to me are Jocelin Donahue playing a cute, truly innocent Samantha and the awesome Tom Noonan as Mr. Ullman.
And what our minds are capable of is quite terrifying.
So, see it, judge for yourself. Me, I'll be that chopper flying overhead. Leave a sign outside your house if you need rescuing...unless you're the Ullmans.