Horror movies are like rock and roll - no matter what the current state of the genre actually is, everyone believes that they are living after the golden age has already passed. Every decent horror film is inevitably described as a throwback to some earlier touchstone, and genre deconstruction isn't simply something that directors do on occasion, but an entire subgenre unto itself. With The House of the Devil director Ti West, working from his own script, cuts out the middleman and simply makes a throwback horror movie without pretense. Set in some indeterminate year in the early-to-mid-80's, the film announces its old-fashioned bonafides right at the opening credits.
Jocelin Donahue plays Samantha, a college student with pressing money issues who takes a babysitting job from the mysterious Mr. Ulman (Tom Noonan). He and his wife (scream queen Mary Woronov) turn out to be looking for a sitter, not for their child, but for Mr. Ulman's mother, and despite the misgivings of her best friend Megan (Greta Gerwig), Samantha decides to go through with the job. As the true nature of the job slowly reveals itself to us, and to her, Samantha's night begins to take on the tenor of the horror movie that it has always threatened to become.
West doles out the scares in very, very measured doses. From the moment Samantha and Megan arrive at the Ulmans' house it is clear that sinister things are peeking out from the margins, but West lets the dread build and build while mostly not delivering overt scenes of horror. There's a real confidence in this film that I appreciated immensely - Donahue spends the bulk of the movie alone on screen, moving around the house, and the anticipation of what terrors might await Sam is the only thing really sustaining its forward momentum. Donahue makes an adequate horror movie protagonist, but the real stand-out performance is character actor all-star Noonan, whose banal creepiness as he describes the job to Sam sets the stage for the tense second act (Woronov's performance is a tad too unsubtle and weird, and pitched too much for the third act reveal).
This is not a fast-moving horror film - this is a deliberately paced movie that wears its 60's and 70's era influences on its sleeve. The tension is turned way up and the gore turned way down (although there is a tad, for anyone who can't stomach any). No one will have to describe it as a throwback, because it does the job itself, but it is a creepy little movie in the best horror film tradition. B+