The Satanic Panic of the late 1970s through the early 1990s gripped waves of PTA-members and home-alone-teens alike. Ten Halloweens ago, director/screenwriter Ty West delivered an often overlooked but amazingly crafted glimpse into the worst fears of a generation that may only now be getting the fanfare it deserved. While social media posts asking for horror flick recommendations are usually woefully lacking in suggestions for The House of The Devil, thankfully not everyone slept on this one the first time around. With an estimated budget of $900,000, The House of the Devil earned six nominations and three awards including Best Score and Best Actress respectively at Screamfest 2009 and Best Feature Film at the 2009 Sidewalk Film Festival. This slow burn is almost a solo act that follows college sophomore Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) as her ambitions cause her to ignore the signs of doom as they close in on her. The director’s use of lighting, suspense, symbolism, just enough pizza and some of the best horror tropes come together for a film worth viewing. What follows is a brief synopsis of the movie before some more in-depth analysis that contains spoilers.
In 1983, Samantha is desperate to rid herself of her sloppy dorm-mate. A way out presents itself in the form of a tiny single apartment, complete with a landlord willing to make some financial concessions for a broke college sophomore. Despite not having the funds, Samantha agrees to the first month’s rent of $300 on the following Monday. Back on campus, Samantha plays phone tag with the mysterious Mr. Ulman (Tom Noonan) for a well-paying babysitting job, and he’s adamant about finding someone for the duration of that night’s lunar eclipse. Finally securing the job, Samantha is brought to the remote mansion by her friend Megan (Greta Gerwig) all the while ignoring Megan’s pleas that all may not be as it seems. Once at the mansion, it’s revealed that there is no baby and Mrs. Ulman (Mary Woronov) needs someone to remain at the home in case her elderly mother has an emergency. Imperiling both of them, Samantha ignores Megan’s final protests and instead agrees to stay for a higher price.
West’s use of lighting may be reflective of what the different scenes represent to Samantha’s current situation versus her goal. The film opens in a single apartment; it is well lit and represents a very clean and tidy space. Later in the film at the pizzeria, Megan makes reference to Samantha being a neat freak. The well-lit single apartment is Samantha’s goal. This is contrasted by one of the least-lit scenes of the movie, the dorm room Samantha shares which may as well be a superfund site. The dorm is chaotic and domineered by her slovenly roommate. Once Samantha arrives at the mansion, subtle changes in the lighting clue the viewer of the impending danger. At first, the mansion is well lit, Samantha is confident and hopeful. She sees this job and the mansion as the conduit through which she can bring her goal (the apartment) to her. As the night progresses, the lighting in the mansion begins to subtly become more distant. The scenes become darker. As Samantha ignores the signs that something dire is wrong, shadow is used more and more. Eventually, it is too late to escape the house, at which point the lighting now reflects that of the dorm room she desperately wanted to escape before finding herself in complete darkness. Lighting is also significant during two scenes in the climax when the heroine is fighting back. These are subtle inflections, especially as the last scene of the climax is well-lit through moonlight. The last well-lit scene is the final scene; the closing scene in the hospital room is one of the goals completed though not the goal Samantha has willfully chosen for herself.
The subtle changes is lighting is also reflective of the highly suspenseful atmosphere created by West. The main character in all of her ambition is blind, or willfully ignores the signs that the viewer is keyed into. Even before Samantha is left alone, clues are strung along blatantly signaling that all is not well. The initial game of phone-tag with Mr. Ulman could probably be excused. Finding out the Ulmans lied about the baby would have been a major red-flag. The creepy demeanor and obsession of the full moon could have been put off as eccentricity. The fact that they were willing to pay $400 dollars in 1983 to keep her in that creepy house with an unseen geriatric just for the duration of the full moon should have been a whole bag of red flags. All of that was while she still had time to leave with Megan, but Samantha’s ambition causes her to stay. Eventually while snooping, because why not, Samantha finds a framed photograph hidden away, we see a youngish, quaint nuclear family that is definitely not the Ulmans. Yet, the totally adorable family is standing in front of the car the Ulmans drove away in. The viewer is helpless as a nice and seemingly capable Samantha continues to swat away every red flag that flies at her.
While West uses lighting as a subtle motif, the moon is an overt reoccurring symbol that can be interpreted in different ways. The ephemeral nature of the lunar eclipse may represent the small window of opportunity the characters have to reach their goals. The lunar eclipse; much like the marches of time or the MTA, wait for no one. Blatantly the Ulman family’s timetable of their goals is literally dictated by the duration of the eclipse. Samantha has until Monday to come up with her first month’s rent. At the end of the climax, the screen cuts to the newscasters Samantha had been watching earlier while eating her special delivery pizza. The newscasters tell the viewer that the duration of the eclipse lasted much shorter than imagined possible, baffling scientists. This serves as a memento mori, reminding the viewer that no one has a guarantee on how long the opportunity’s window remains open.
Speaking of pizza; even Samantha and Megan’s usual pizzeria is attempting to capitalize on the eclipse-mania. As one scene fades to the next, a close-up of a chalk-drawn sign comes into focus. The shot pans out displaying an advertisement for a one-day only eclipse pie special. We are reminded that while the lunar eclipse represents a pivotal night in the lives of the main characters, large-scale events witnessed by many will mean different things or perhaps present different opportunities to different people. Perhaps that feta is about to turn? Pizza rears its delicious head later in the film, but this time as a more sinister vehicle of opportunity. Before leaving the mansion Mr. Ulman makes reference to ordering pizza from the number on the fridge several times. Samantha later succumbs to Ulman’s implanted suggestion, ordering a medium Trojan horse with pepperoni delivered by the Ulman’s son (A.J. Bowen). When someone is in the middle of nowhere, and the delivery person shows up with no car, handing over a Frankenstein looking pizza—that is what most would call a classic red flag.
Tropes abound in The House of The Devil and West employs them artfully. One of the few missteps of the director was, unfortunately, the opening screen. The movie opens with a white caption on a black screen informing the viewer that 70 percent of American adults in the 1980s believed in the existence of “abuse satanic cults” and an additional 30 percent believed a lack of evidence of said cults was the result of a government conspiracy. While the suspension of belief is key, especially for any horror movie, expecting the viewer to believe the entire adult American population believed in the existence of these cults is not a strong way to draw the viewer in. In hindsight, this bold conspiratorial statement is probably better suited for the culture of today than it had been in 2009. Conversely, the stereotype of the helpless female lead is turned on its head. Samantha plunges headfirst into the danger zone not because she is vapid and witless, but because being assured in her own capabilities has allowed her ambition to cloud her judgment. The mansion where the bulk of the film takes place is both creepy and foreboding without appearing hokey. This was achieved through lighting, musical score, and the performance of Donahue. Donahue’s portrayal of the isolated babysitter was the lynchpin of the suspenseful elements due to at least half of the movie depicting Samantha in solo scenes. The occult-horror imagery the viewer is treated to checks just about every box one would want from a murderous demonic cult. West and his cast created a piece that pays homage to some of the genre’s favorite tropes while sidestepping their pitfalls.
Horror audiences in 2009 may have missed The House of the Devil the first time around but die-hard fans continue to draw new fans into the Ulman’s bloody circle. To celebrate the 10 year anniversary of its release several theatres across the United States have brought the film back for a limited release. West wrote and directed a film that will be counted as a horror staple. Donahue’s portrayal of Samantha the college babysitter was both classic and refreshing. When choosing a scary movie for a dark and stormy night West’s 2009 occult-horror thriller The House of The Devil will not disappoint.