House of the Devil (2009)

Do you remember that show and book series The Babysitters Club? Do you remember that time when one of the babysitters got wrangled into watching an old lady on the outskirts of town and then weird shit started happening? If you don’t it’s because I’m describing this movie and not the Babysitters Club, but the two do seem like they might be kinda similar. If you are interested in Ti West’s very stylish story of one girl’s babysitting job gone awry, read our spoiler filled review, below.

Shout out to listener John for suggesting we review this one.

Reviewed by: Mark

 
 

Plot Synopsis

We open on a young collegiate coed, Samantha (Joceline Donahue) looking to rent a new apartment. After finalizing the deal with her new landlady she ambles back home in an opening credit sequence reminiscent of the Mary Tyler Moore show. On her way home she notices some flyers looking for a babysitter, and being short on change from her recent real estate transaction she tears off the tab with the number. After connecting with the mysterious gentleman who put the flyers out, she meets her friend Megan (Greta Gerwig) for some food and to discuss the babysitting job. Although she’s a little concerned about the job she really needs the money, so she convinces Megan to drive her to the house to get a feel for things.

 
 Total besties

Total besties

 

Once the duo arrive at the house, they are greeted by Mr. Ulman (Tom Noonan). He meekly explains that the babysitting job is in fact an adult-sitting job for his elderly mother. You see, there is a lunar eclipse tonight that is of some importance to Mr. Ulman and he really must go out to see it. Being understandably weirded out by the situation, Samantha begins to have second thoughts and declines Mr. Ulman’s offer, but he offers to pay her $400 for her trouble. Ultimately, this offer is too great to refuse and the deal is struck. Megan still cautions against the job, but reluctantly leaves Samantha alone and drives home for the evening.

 
 Noonan turns in a great performance as a strange and mysterious older gentleman.

Noonan turns in a great performance as a strange and mysterious older gentleman.

 

Before Megan gets too far from the house she stops and is confronted by a young man who strikes up a conversation. Once he realizes she is not “the babysitter” we are treated to our first jumpscare of the movie as he pulls out a gun and shoots her in the head. It’s… messy. Meanwhile, back at the house, Samantha begins to see some weird shit.  Pictures of a family living in the house that are not the Ulmans, pictures of people driving the car that the Ulmans used to leave, a generally creepy basement… that kind of thing. Before long she decides to order pizza from the number that Mr. Ulman left on the fridge. When the delivery man arrives it is none other than the guy who shot Megan earlier. Samantha takes the pizza, eats one bite and then throws it away because it tastes funny. The delivery man breaks into the house, and Samantha realizes too late that she was drugged by the pizza. She passes out.

Fade in on Samantha in the basement, tied up in a ritualistic satanic fashion. The old lady she was babysitting is finally present and is revealed to be a witch/hag/succubus. The Ulman family begin to perform some ritual, but before long Samantha is able to break free. As she runs through the house she is pursued by the family, however one by one she is able to kill them. She takes the gun from the delivery man (who apparently is Mr. Ulman’s son) and runs from the house, being chased by the only living remnant of the Ulman family, Mr. Ulman. As he chases her into a field, she realizes that she has been impregnated by a demon. In an effort to stop herself from becoming a vessel for the anti-christ she shoots herself in the head, much to Mr. Ulman’s discontent. End? Nope. In a stunner, turns out she didn’t actually kill herself and she is kept alive and unconscious in a hospital. A nurse walks in and says that “both of them” will be taken care of.

 
 How could you not love that face?

How could you not love that face?

 

What the Movie Does Right

Its style. This one is immediately noticeable, unique, and pervasive throughout the film. Despite being released in 2009 the film is shot as though it were released in the early 1980s, and every last detail of the temporal setting is done perfectly. The costumes, sets, and props are all great for the period. What is even better though is that the film itself seems to think it was made thirty years ago. From the bright yellow superimposed credits, to the intro title card, to the shot style and composition. This film looks like it was found in a time capsule. Ti West actually shot on 16mm film for the movie as well to give it a more authentic look, and it completely pays off.

Speaking of the time period, the viewer is also treated to a very well curated licensed soundtrack. There are not many musical moments in the film, but the ones that are there are great. Notably, both The Breakup Song and One Thing Leads to Another both make prominent appearances. I think I might just be a sucker for music, but this is the type of touch that actively makes a movie better.

The pacing is the last one I would like to touch on here. Slow burns are often hard things to digest, and can border on being too boring. This movie is definitely a slow burn, so if those aren’t your thing, then beware. However, this movie does something very smart throughout, it gives great glimpses of what the stakes are for Samantha even if she doesn’t realize it. Specifically, the inclusion of Megan getting shot, and a scene revealing the dead owners of the house behind a door are both there to keep the viewer entertained without having to actually put Sam in danger. The movie moves along pretty slowly, but without those two scenes this would be insufferable.


What the Movie Does Wrong

The third act in general leaves a lot to be desired. Since she is drugged the transition between scenes is essentially just a fade out from the house and a fade in to the basement. Basically, we teleport from one place to another, and it totally destroys the momentum of the movie. It’s a cheap contrivance to get her into harm's way, and it struck me as lazy. Additionally, the blocking and choreography of the scene when she initially escapes is done in such a wacky way that it almost comes off as slapstick. Not really the vibe I feel like you want in a satanic blood ritual occurring in an unfinished basement.

 
 A sure sign that your babysitting job isn't going well.

A sure sign that your babysitting job isn't going well.

 

One other factor that rockets to the top of this list is going to be rewatchability for me. The initial charm and surprise of seeing an era of movies so perfectly recreated in modern times wears off by the end of the film, and I fear that without that initial good will that repeated viewings might be difficult to get through. Also, given the third act leaves you (or at least it left us) feeling a little let down, the general impetus to come back to this one is pretty low.


Ratings (1-10)

Story: 3 - There’s really not a lot of story in here, and I think that’s a good thing. It seems to me to be a stylistic choice to strip the movie down its bare bones of “babysitter in a dark creepy house.” It’s actually pretty refreshing how little you know about the cultists or their overall plan.

World-Building / Immersion: 6 - I might be overrating this category because of the stylishness and slow but effective ratcheting up of plot. The early death scene lets you know what the stakes are, and from there you are strapped in waiting for the other shoe to drop. It’s bordering on too slow, but I don’t think it quite gets there.

Scare-Factor: 6 - The other two gents had this category a little lower than I did, which I guess is fair. I just think there is something about being alone in a strange house that is inherently creepy. Pile on what is lying behind the doors upstairs and you get a pretty creepy setting.

Effects (or Judicious Lack Thereof): 7.5 - The stylishness of this movie comprising props, wardrobe, sets, lighting, and film quality is what makes this thing memorable. Set in modern times this movie would be utterly lackluster, however the use of effects to really develop the setting and time period does this movie a huge service.

Overall: 5.5 - I’m glad I watched this movie. If you haven’t watched it, you probably should. The reason that it’s not getting a higher score is because now that I’ve seen it, I don’t think I’ll be revisiting it. I just don’t see the need.