The current wave of 80s revivalism comes to a head in Ti West’s The House of the Devil. Shot on startlingly beautiful 16mm film and featuring the music of The Fixx (God help us all), everything in this movie points to an infatuation with the decade that bought us Manimal and Reaganism.
The concept is as follows; to present a period film in both subject matter and form. And it succeeds, it could indeed be a lost video nasty, such is the level of detail on display.
The decade that taste forgot is evoked with impressive precision, to the extent that one can easily forget that the movie was created towards the back end of the noughties.
This, however, may be West’s greatest miscalculation as well as his most impressive trick. The House of the Devil so well mirrors films like I Spit on Your Grave and The Last House on the Left that it also contracts their most common and grievous flaws.
It is very much a film of three distinct acts. The first one seems auspicious enough. Gawdy yellow title credits smear themselves over the opening moments, accentuating the occasional freeze frame. An authentic synth-soundtrack bops and bleeps alongside the more traditional dissonance of stringed instruments and our heroine, Samantha (Jocelin Donahue), sports an adorable barnet of 80s curls.
Such scrupulous attention to detail makes for a pleasing retro charm and immediately sets the tone.
It becomes apparent that Samantha needs $300 to move from her current dorm into a new apartment, the minor exodus motivated by her sexually promiscuous and royally insensitive roommate. Desperate for the cash, she accepts a babysitting job offered by a man with the warm, lucid and predatory vocals tones of an unhinged psychiatrist.
Of course, things are not as straight forward as they seem, as upon meeting her employer she is told that there is no child to babysit. However, she is offered even more money in return for watching an elderly woman who lurks somewhere within the house. And instead of getting the f**k out of dodge, Samantha accepts the proposal.
So begins a night of blunted and ill conceived horror cliché.
The second act – the vast majority of the film – is frustratingly inconsistent. One minute the atmosphere is thick with brooding suspense, the next one can barely stay awake through the dawdling miasma of false tension. The sluggish pace and intermittent scares are confusing more than they are engaging.
Regardless of whether the quality of fright is maintained, however, when it is good it is VERY good.
At its best, this belated mid-section is a text-book example of how to create suspense without anything really happening, the titular house providing a disquieting environment for the horrific events to unfold. It may be an annoying sequence that never quite sets into a comfortable stride, but it is one that largely pays off.
In the third act the film suffers from a baffling personality crisis. Equal amounts of corn syrup and satanic imagery are utilised with devil may care flippancy, much to the bewilderment of both the heroine and the audience.
There is even a demonic lizard woman for Christs sake. It would be garishly enjoyable had the whole film maintained this kind of aesthetic. But, as it is, it just feels momentously jarring and never really recovers from the significant change in mood.
The House of the Devil has earned much applause with both fans and critics alike for rehashing the past with such vivid authenticity. This enthusiasm seems questionable, however, as the resulting movie is a misjudged calamity of wavering quality.
Like the films it is so obviously emulating, it cannot find a steady pace or single tone for which to hold on to.
It is certainly not a complete disaster but disappoints largely because such great potential is wasted. And once the credits roll, all we are left with is a bad taste of forgotten promise.