The people behind “The House of the Devil” might not know much about making a good film, but they certainly know how to market a bad one. Not only does the DVD come with retro box art to make it look like a relic from the Reagan era, but you can even go online and send away for a VHS copy, complete with a label bearing the old Gorgon Video logo. As if that weren’t enough, it also boasts cameos from a couple of celebrities (Dee Wallace!) who get announced in the opening credits with old-school lettering, the kind that might’ve turned up in an ’80s slasher film. Come to think of it, most of those movies weren’t all that great, either.
Still, at least they knew how to take a premise and run with it, which is more than can be said for a movie like this. Although “The House of the Devil” depends on a setup that looks promising enough, no one here seems to know the first thing about dramatic tension – instead of keeping things moving with some kind of conflict, everybody just waits for something interesting to happen, as if they were pawns hoping for somebody to come along and push them around.
The funny thing is that for as scary as the title makes the house sound, the movie’s most uninspired moments take place there. Our heroine, a college student named Samantha (Jocelin Donahue), shows up there one evening for a babysitting job, which she takes to earn the down payment she needs to secure her new apartment. She assures her friend Megan (Greta Gerwig) that it’ll be a cinch, but when she’s greeted at the door by Mr. Ulman (Tom Noonan), who says he wants her to watch over his mother instead of the kid she’d expected, it takes a little more money to convince her to stick around.
With Mr. Ulman’s mother asleep in her bedroom upstairs, Samantha finds herself with lots of time on her hands, which she passes with a bunch of mundane activities. Not that shooting pool or watching TV is no fun, but you’d think that staying in a house inhabited by Satan would be enough to keep any babysitter’s hands full, particularly on a night when there’s a lunar eclipse to worry about.
Part of the problem here is that we see everything from her point of view, which doesn’t give us much material to work with. Because the bad guys are more or less absent until the eclipse comes around, there’s a nagging lack of expository dialogue, requiring us to learn everything from empirical evidence. Sure, nuance has become a lost art in horror films, but faith in our ability to fill in the blanks can only be taken so far.
You’ve got to admit, though, that art on the DVD cover looks pretty cool, kind of like something that might’ve stared at you from an old video-store shelf. As a matter of fact, there’s a very good chance of finding a copy there now, and although someone’s bound to rent it sooner or later, it doesn’t seem likely that whoever takes it out will get charged with a late fee.