June 5 at Doc Films: “The House of the Devil”


Borrowing heavily from ‘70s and ‘80s slasher films, The House of the Devil (2009), showing at Doc Films at the University of Chicago on Thursday, June 5, is a classic horror film in style, though its actual substance remains a little lacking.

Set in the early ‘80s, the film focuses on broke college student Samantha Hughes, who accepts a lucrative babysitting job on the night of a lunar eclipse. Her employers, however, are soon revealed to be Satanists who want to use her in a special eclipse ritual, forcing Samantha to fight her way out of the house alive.

A key part of the film’s success lies in its ‘80s setting. To start, writer/director Ti West painstakingly reproduced aspects of ‘80s culture, including acid wash jeans, feathered hair, and new wave music on Samantha’s Walkman. A few smaller details are even included, like an offhanded comment from one of Samantha’s friends about a Volvo 240 sedan.

However, any film can accurately represent a time period through correct costumes and props. What makes West’s work remarkable is the way in which he created a film that looks and feels as if it had genuinely come from the early ‘80s, in line with slasher films of the time like Halloween (1978) or Friday the 13th (1980).

Mainly, West shot the film on 16mm, giving it the low-budget, grainy look associated with early independent horror like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). He also adhered to a strict style of shooting, in which zooms dominate instead of the now much more common effect of tracking shots. When the film opens grainy, with synth music as the score and freeze-frames with yellow text as the credits, it requires a second of thought to remember this film was actually made only five years ago.

This homage to ‘80s slasher films also extends into the narrative structure of The House of the Devil. Samantha herself is the archetypal “Final Girl,” just like Laurie in Halloween or Alice in Friday the 13th. Coined by film theorist Carol J. Clover, she described the Final Girl as characterized by “smartness, gravity, competence in mechanical and other practical matters, and sexual reluctance.” Beyond this, the Final Girl is the one to experience abject terror (for audiences would reject abject terror on the part of a male) and is also, as the name suggests, the only survivor at the end of the film, the Final Girl being the one to successfully vanquish the monster.

Under this definition, Samantha fits the Final Girl role almost perfectly. In contrast to her promiscuous roommate, Samantha is not shown to be interested in sex, fitting her into the virginal part, and in fact, the topic is barely brought up in conversation. She is also the main protagonist to be frightened by the Satanists, as well as ultimately escape them, though the lack of victims before her (the only other to be attacked is – very quickly – her friend Megan) distinguishes her from other Final Girls who are the final in a long line of attacks.

Samantha is also different from other female horror protagonists in that she is actually a highly developed character, not merely a surrogate for audience terror. At the beginning of the film, Samantha is trying to rent an apartment but lacks enough money to cover the security deposit. This concern with money becomes the focal point of the first half of the film and is the reason she agrees to babysit even when the initial meeting with her employer feels wrong. It’s not as if she isn’t intelligent enough to walk away from the house, but rather she has no choice but to stay for the money.

Almost every connection with the ‘70s and ‘80s films is perfectly executed, but the film falls a little flat at the end and doesn’t quite deliver on its horror promise. With the exception of Megan’s quick death, the hour-and-a-half film only becomes horrific in the last twenty minutes or so. It understandably takes time to develop Samantha’s character, but the slow build doesn’t maintain steam long enough to be completely worthwhile. In contrast, the slasher films it pays homage to are paced more consistently with attacks usually spread across the entire latter half.

Regardless of the flaws in pacing, The House of the Devil is still an interesting recreation of an older, more deliberate type of horror film, constructed without the jump scare clichés of contemporary horror films. It may not beat the best of the ‘70s and ‘80s films it refers to, but the film at least deserves to be considered among their ranks in terms of quality.

For more information about Doc Films, visit docfilms.uchicago.edu.