The slow burn. That’s something 21st-century torture porn franchises like “Saw” and “Hostel” have taught audiences not to appreciate. But Ti West’s “The House of the Devil” does not live in this time. It is a love letter — and an articulate, skillfully crafted one — to a simpler era of horror (the ’70s and ’80s) when psychological torment trumped blood splatter. The impact of knife-wielding, bloodthirsty psychopaths and their ghastly handywork fades quickly; the havoc wrought by one’s own imagination does not.
Consider the plight of college student Samantha (Jocelin Donhaue), who finds herself alone in a spooky Victorian miles from her dorm and her ride Megan (Greta Gerwig). Desperation got here there: Wanting to escape her boorish dorm roommate, Samantha found a quaint apartment nearby. But the landlady (Dee Wallace) needs the first month’s rent in less than a week, and Samantha, in dire need of quick cash, finds an ad for a babysitter. Mr. Ullman (Tom Noonan) needs someone immediately. Samantha hears the clipped urgency in his tone and she’s disturbed by it — just not enough to turn down her only job offer. The long, winding drive to the Ullman homestead is a great mood-setter, but a very subtle one. Samantha and Megan chatter, with Megan becoming increasingly uneasy about the Ullmans and insisting that she come along. Nothing leaps out in front of the car; no sinister shapes dart past the camera too quickly to be seen. In short, nothing happens but two girls talking and driving down a road that seems endless. Expectation of what’s at the end of the road multiplies the dread exponentially.
The remote, spacious home — and the Ullmans themselves — live up to this expectation. Noonan is menacing in completely unexpected ways because there’s nothing about him that screams “villain.” From the looks of it, he’s an eccentric old man acting as caregiver to his aged mother (he lied in the ad). He could be an eccentric who just doesn’t want to miss the midnight lunar eclipse. There’s more to his flimsy story than that; our mistrust of him stems more from what he does not say, and from his body language. He is tense and nervous and not as harmless as he appears, which Noonan demonstrates by forcefully scraping back his chair when Samantha, upset he mislead her about the job, starts to leave. He asserts a disquieting kind of authority in this scene, and Samantha backs down (though not without negotiating her fee up to $400). Noonan and Donahue’s early scenes together are an exercise in controlled anxiety. The tension easily triples when Samantha, essentially alone in the sprawling, silent house, tries to distract herself by wandering the rooms, exploring coat closets, calling Megan and leaving messages on her machine, ordering a pizza. Much of “The House of the Devil” revolves around Samantha’s efforts to settle her mind in the face of the house’s creeks and groans. And there are many, for Ti West has designed the Ullman house to act as a character and not merely a prop.
Until the final bloody act, “The House of the Devil” relies on three things: Jeff Grace’s spare, creepy score (devoid of that “hey, the killer’s behind you” showiness), Donahue’s performance (which is so realistic as to be more of a nonperformance) and West’s stern refusal to offer up the slightest bit of tension relief. It’s the third point that lingers unpleasantly after the credits roll, that feeling of waiting and not knowing. West builds the tension by holding back everything most modern horror directors would let loose in the first 10 minutes: blood, gore, violence, even action. Slasher film aficionados and gore fiends will find little to swoon over here. However, fans of psychological terror, of directors who only tease our minds with menace — faint thumping behind an attic door; a curtain rippling in a breezeless room — will be rewarded for their investment of patience and time. There’s a story here, a genuinely scary one, and West commits himself fully and totally to telling that story his way. West as a filmmaker has grasped a long-forgotten tenet of horror: that fear, as Frank Herbert wrote in “Dune,” is the real mind-killer.