You can tell from the gaudy banana yellow block print font of the opening credits of The House of the Devil (2009) that it’s very proud to be a retro bit of exploitation nostalgia but exactly what era it’s throwing us back to is intentionally left unclear. Based on a true story of a young woman taken terrorized by devil-worshippers in the ‘80s, writer/director Ti West’s haunted house chiller is a pastiche that liberally takes elements from Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Hammer horror flicks like To the Devil a Daughter (1976) and ‘80s slasher fare. As such, it has nothing original to say and refuses to say it consistently but thanks to a few good performances and a couple of good scare scenes, it gets the job done fairly adequately.
Samantha (Jocelyn Donahue) is the kind of co-ed heroine that critics of the slasher genre wish there were more of. Her motivation for answering a mysterious “Babysitter Wanted” ad—needing some form of income to pay for her new digs—provides the film with a flimsy but believable excuse for the inevitable formulaic plot that follows. She’s not nearly as alienated as Rosemary Woodhouse because her community is made up of absent-minded roommates and thoughtful BFFs but she is pixie-ish enough in her innocence to make her a perfect foil for the winningly creepy Ulmans’ (Synecdoche, New York’s Tom Noonan, Mary Woronov and AJ Bowen), a family that is a weird mix of the Castevets and Leatherface’s clan.
The problem with The House of the Devil however isn’t that it’s a mutt of a grindhouse throwback but that the elements it cherrypicks are for the most part kind of boring. The film’s turgid pacing is meant to build up a brooding atmosphere but only rarely works because Samantha’s just not that interesting a character follow.
Despite her cute lil’ dimples, period-specific coiff and adorable skinny jeans, Samantha’s just a well-developed final girl. She bops around the Ulmans’ place with her massive walkman, orders suspicious-looking pizza—like Rosemary’s Baby, West’s film also makes the viewer wary of anything edible—and watches TV. Heck, she’s so chaste that she doesn’t even have a boyfriend to push off her when the going gets creepy. Realistically, the terrors of the Ulmans’ haunted house and their sometimes campy but otherwise terrific performances are the real draw for a reason but most of the time, it’s very hard to care what happens considering that West’s using such threadbare bait.