No Sympathy for ‘The House of the Devil’

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.

About David Guzman 207 Articles
I just received my degree in journalism at Brooklyn College, where I served as the arts editor for one of the campus newspapers, the Kingsman. When it comes to the arts, I’ve managed to cover a variety of subjects, including music, films, books and art exhibitions. I’ve reviewed everything from “Slumdog Millionaire” (which was a good film) to “Coraline,” (which wasn’t) and I’ve also interviewed legendary film critic Leonard Maltin.

2 Comments

  1. I’d have to completely disagree with your review. I found this film extremely suspenseful. I’ve now watched it more than once (after picking up the Blu-Ray… still wish I had a VHS copy :P). I love the look & feel of the film. I like that it’s not a typical horror film in that it has no gratuitous language or nudity. It hits where it counts… and that’s atmosphere & suspense. The excellent, eerie score helps hit those properties home.

    As soon as the couple leave you home… you KNOW (because you’re told) that she’s not alone. She acts as though she’s alone… eating pizza, listening to headphones, dancing, watching TV but since you, the viewer are aware of the “able bodied” mother upstairs… it made me nervous.

    I feel bad for those of you who can’t see the magic of this film. If you don’t feel the suspense… then I can’t believe you actually enjoy watching horror/suspense films, as this is one of the best I’ve seen in years.

  2. Although i appericate the 80’s feel of the movie , i could tell with in the first 15 minutes i was going to be disappointed. The great screenwriter syd fields taught that you could tell within the 15minutes whether the film is that one you would like or not. what you call great suspense, i call a movie “inisisting” on its self. Like maybe if you lived on a desert island or had never seen a good horror movie would you enjoy this. Its not terrible but not great either. people who give this movie a good review probably over identify with some aspect of the movie (the 80’s set design and costume, or the way one of the girls looked, or some other minute detail ignoring the movie as a whole…

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