Movie Review: The House of the Devil

3/10 Bland half-premise in need of editing.

A young college student needs money and takes a babysitting job for some devil worshipers.

That’s it. That’s pretty much all the story you’ll get. I don’t usually deal in spoilers, but sometimes, I make an exception.

Story and Characters

“Story” is being generous. As is “characters.” The writer/director/editor (we’ll get to this problem) had only a concept to work with and didn’t spend enough time developing the initial idea into a full story. There are so many elements lined up in the first third of the film that all go to waste. Our protagonist, Samantha, is a college student struggling to make ends meet (as does almost every college student in history). She finds a place to move into (which never comes up again) but has to worry about how to pay for it. When she returns to her dorm, her roommate has locked her out for some boy-time, and they don’t seem to get along well. We never really get to know the roommate, so this does nothing but offer some padding. Samantha takes on the babysitting job (after some unnecessary trial-and-error padding) and convinces her friend Megan to drive her. One of the few plot points we’ve seen so far that is related to the story is the constant references to an upcoming eclipse. But the eclipse doesn’t mean much either; it’s just a McGuffin. So when Samantha gets to the house, the people there are strange, but she agrees to babysit because the husband offers her a lot of money. We’ve finally gotten some story moving, but it soon halts again because once left with the house, Samantha spends another third or so of the film goofing off and getting bored. The audience shares in her boredom. The movie is only 1h35m, and we spend probably the first hour waiting for something to happen.

The movie wants to be a slow-burn horror movie, but there’s too little tension. For the first half-hour, the film meanders from one unimportant scene to another, trying its hardest to pad the runtime to feature-length. When Samantha gets to the house and we meet the creepy husband and wife, very little tension is built; the couple seems a little weird, and that’s about it. And then we get the montages. First, a montage of Samantha wandering around the house, snooping and playing with things, which establishes nothing of importance. Then we get a second montage of her listening to music, playing pool, and dancing around the house. Again, it’s nothing but padding. When something does happen, Samantha breaks a vase (gasp!), but it’s okay, the broken vase is unimportant. While cleaning it up, she opens the closet and we finally, mercifully, get some tension: a clue that something isn’t right. The wife said she was getting a coat from the basement, but Samantha finds the coats upstairs along with a picture of a different family. This, of course, raises the question of what’s in the basement, but Samantha looks outside for the car in the photo instead and never investigates the basement. She goes back through the house and we the audience see that behind one door is a satanic circle and three dead bodies. But Samantha never sees them, we just randomly break from the character POV to see it; it exists to let the audience know the weird people (in the film called The House of the Devil) are devil worshipers…

Other strange plot points make no sense. The husband mentions an older son. We meet him when Megan pulls over into a graveyard to light a cigarette (why?) and is scared by a young man. He asks if she’s the babysitter, then shoots her when she says no. Why was he waiting in the graveyard? Why even bother shooting a random person? He would have no way of knowing if she’s even involved. It gets worse; during the boring climax, Megan’s dead body has been, for no reason, deposited in the house’s hallway. Why? So Samantha can run into it and discover her friend is dead? Why did they dump Megan in the hall to bleed all over the floor? I could keep going. There are so many “why?” moments.

As for characters, Samantha is the only one we get to know. There are a few other side characters who get a couple of scenes, and a few minor characters who could have been cut completely. Horror doesn’t have to be character-driven, but it’s more effective with characters. For every character the film doesn’t have, you have to bring an equal amount of tension and atmosphere to replace them. This movie didn’t bother much with that either. On the upside, most of the acting isn’t bad, there are even some seasoned faces here. It’s a shame they didn’t have a more interesting story to work with and more three-dimensional characters.

One-Man Show

As mentioned, this film was written, directed, and perhaps most criminally of all, edited by one man: Ti West. The directing isn’t bad, there are even some good shots. And the overall aesthetic of the film masterfully recreates the 80s in which it’s set. Directing is clearly what he studied most. The writing isn’t great. The dialogue isn’t bad, but the story is little more than an undeveloped premise. Someone else needed to do the editing. Scenes drag on past their need to exist, and many scenes needed to be cut altogether. We don’t need the entire phone call of her ordering pizza. Better writing would have helped, but good editing could have saved the film. It would have made a better short in a horror anthology than a stand-alone film.

Conclusion

I love slow-burn horror. I reviewed The Shining novel and mentioned that I love the film. The Witch is another favorite of mine, and I recently saw and fell in love with The Lighthouse. But this movie isn’t slow-burn, it’s just slow. It waits over an hour to light the fire, which pops briefly like a dud firework, and then it’s over.

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