If Lucio Fulci (The Psychic) and Dario Argento (Suspiria) set your heart aflutter, then Ti West's retro-flashback creepfest is right up your alley. Mixing the young-girl-in-supernatural-pearl plotline of '70s cinema with the low-budget horror stylizations of the '80s, his House of the Devil trades moody atmosphere for gore and slow-boil tension for hysterical shocks. But far from Tarantino and Rodriguez's giddy Grindhouse, West offers up homage in the truest sense. And that's both its virtue and flaw.
You've heard this one before: Nubile but sweet-faced college sophomore Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) is in desperate need of cash. She's got a pig of a roommate and the perfect relocation spot, but needs $300 in less than a week. No easy task in '80s America; minimum wage is $3.35. Answering a flier ad for a high-paying emergency babysitting gig, she's driven to the outskirts of town by her unruly best buddy Megan (mumblecore mainstay Greta Gerwig). There she meets the creepy Ullmans (Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov), who reveal that it's actually their elderly, antisocial mother they'd like her to look after. When Samantha balks, they offer her enough dough to solve all her housing dilemmas. Note that it's the night of a total lunar eclipse, and that town is the best place on earth to view it. Oh, also, Tom and Mary are Satanists.
Everything from House of the Devil's opening credits to its cheesy synth score screams '80s horror flick. Cinematographer Eliot Rockett has expertly captured the eerie voyeuristic approach of the genre, while West capitalizes on feathered hair, acid-washed jeans, rotary phones and brick-sized Walkmans to effectively evoke the period. He even drops in the Fixx's "One Thing Leads to Another."
But fans who like their horror frantically violent, explosively gory and filled with random shocks of brutality will undoubtedly be disappointed. The tone and approach of House of the Devil is decidedly 1970s, using a sudden bit of first-act violence to feed nearly an hour of slow building anticipation and heebie-jeebies. This is the realm of movies like Let's Scare Jessica to Death, Black Christmas or 1979's A Stranger in the House.
Unfortunately, West pushes his "wait for it" sense of menace too far. Instead of steadily building dread and capitalizing on the audience's expectations, the movie starts to drag. And when its final act finally hits, the payoff is more rushed and chaotic than surprising or shocking.
Still, as an exercise in low-budget filmmaking, House of the Devil proves that West is a filmmaker worth watching. He's rallied a good cast, created interesting characters with motives that make sense, and mastered the art of turning the mundane into the horrific. I suspect he spent many hours studying early John Carpenter. And when you consider the moronic splatterdom of Hostel and its imitators, his old school sensibilities are already years ahead of his competition.
Showing at the Burton Theatre (3420 Cass Ave., Detroit; 313-473-9238). Go to burtontheatre.com for more info.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.