Adopting a retro filmmaking look can be an entertaining stylistic gambit (Grindhouse) or simply a nice idea that doesn't really pay off (The Good German).
Now here comes writer-director Ti West with an '80s throwback film, The House of the Devil. Set in the 1980s and shot with a sensibility that mirrors the films that followed the lead of John Carpenter's ground-breaking Halloween, House of the Devil is all about the simple task of creating tension - then releasing it in a catharsis of shrieking horror.
So we are presented with Samantha (Jocelin Donahue), a college student who's seen making a deal and signing a lease on an apartment that will finally get her out of the dorm and away from a thoughtless roommate. The landlady in that opening scene is Dee Wallace, an icon of early '80s horror for Joe Dante's film The Howling, still one of the best werewolf movies ever made.
But Samantha is strapped for cash to pay the first month's rent. So she jumps at a babysitting flyer posted on campus. Even when the prospective employer stands her up, she still takes the job, after he pleads extenuating circumstances and begs for another chance. He also offers to double the money, which makes it easier to swallow as well.
She gets her best friend Megan (Greta Gerwig) to drive her out to the lavish but deserted old house, where she gets another surprise: In fact, there is no child. Instead, her new employer, Mr. Ulman (Tom Noonan), says he desperately needs her to stay with his elderly mother while he and his wife (Mary Woronov) attend an event. He ups his offer to $500 and she agrees, making Megan promise to come back to pick her up.
And then - what? Well, there are a lot of atmospherics as this college student wanders the house, bored and unoccupied. Yes, I know - it's the '80s, so she doesn't have a laptop or an iPod or a cell phone. But how about a book? A magazine? Some homework? What kind of zero is this girl?
There's a solid 40 minutes of this time-killing (with one unexpected shock), in an effort to generate suspense. The audience knows something or someone is lurking outside and Samantha doesn't. Yet every time she gets a little gooned out, she talks herself out of being scared, or figures out that it's a false alarm.
Of course, in the final 10 minutes, all hell breaks loose, literally - but the title is kind of a giveaway for that. Screaming, stabbing, chasing - accompanied by intense music and swooping camera movements - it's Horror Movie 101, rendered competently if unimaginatively.
Perhaps that's the problem with this sort of homage, particularly in this genre: Unless you've got a startling new take on it, you wind up with a film like The House of the Devil - the kind of movie that's been done hundreds, if not thousands, of times before - and to much better effect.
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