The House of the Devil (2009; dir. Ti West)—The ‘00s were a terrific decade for horror fans because goodies arrived from every part of the world in all shapes and sizes. Visionary remakes like Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead, foreign monster movies like Bong Joon-Ho’s The Host, grimy Southern Gothic trash like Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects, claustrophobic ersatz regionalism like Neil Marshall’s The Descent, and classy modern ghost stories like J.A. Bayona’s The Orphanage were just a few of the films from the past decade that offered cold-blooded, skillfully-timed shocks for newbies and connoisseurs alike. Throw in Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire, David Lynch’s pair of psyche-strafing 21st-century dream labyrinths, and the decade’s finest horror movies look even stronger.
But don’t’ forget about The House of The Devil, Ti West’s slow-burning, highly effective period-piece about Satanic cults, full moons and the terrifying subtext of The Fixx’s “One Thing Leads To Another.” Devil was initially released in both DVD and VHS formats; the VHS tape came in a clamshell case that paid homage to all those cheap, long-forgotten, straight-to-video 1980s horror flicks that once lined the bottoms of countless shabby video store shelves. West’s film, about Samantha (Jocelin Donohue), a cash-strapped college girl who takes a sketchy baby-sitting job at an ominous country house, is a spare, nearly perfect attempt to convey what it might feel like for someone to discover that they’re inside a 1980s horror movie. The bloody, messy revelations of its final third matter much less than the luxurious sense of dread West cultivates like a crazed botanist who’s just discovered a strain of poisonous fungus long thought extinct.
West’s film inhabits a grayish, stick-crackling late-autumn dryness that combines with his eye for telling, funny period details to revive universal horror imagery; when he zooms out to show Samantha alone in a mysterious upstairs room, or cuts in to show her clutching a kitchen knife in front of a heavy wooden door, it’s like he’s gone back in time to those precious moments just before Michael Myers burst onto the screen and sent everyone running for their lives. And with Greta Gerwig and Tom Noonan, West casts a pair of aggressive, twitchy, businesslike scene-stealers to play Samantha’s best friend and the guy who gets her to stay the night by quadrupling his initial offer. The double voyeurism throughout the film’s middle section goes on and on, its voluptuous dread punctuated by nonsense phrases like “Hello, fish” and the final words of the damned everywhere: “It’s OK. Everything’s fine. She’s fine.”