Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) is an impossibly cute college gal dying to escape her slovenly roommate. In order to afford the too-good-to-be-true rent on an apartment she's just discovered, Samantha has to, against her better judgment, answer a Babysitter Wanted flier pinned to the ad board on campus. The man on the phone (Tom Noonan) is a little creepy and a little too eager to find a babysitter on the night of a rare full lunar eclipse, but that's just something Samantha is going to have to put up with if she wants to move out. So the ill-fated coed asks her best friend to drive her out to the isolated house in the woods, where things eventually prove to be even worse than Samantha imagined.
What follows is a remarkably restrained, expertly-maintained atmosphere of tension and dread that is in no rush to evolve from its controlled burn to full-on Satanic panic. And if there's anything that House of the Devil has going against itself, it's the fact that very little happens for long stretches of the film. Granted, this is liable to only be a problem for those who like their horror movies fast, quick and drenched in red, but for those among us who can appreciate a 95-minute film that remains wholly fascinating without exploiting any of the aforementioned qualities, House of the Devil is a near-perfect film.
Ti West couldn't have possibly found a better anchor for the film than Jocelin Donahue, a young lady who carries the entire film on her shoulders. Her delivery of the ultimate '80s girl-next-door scream queen is the source of the majority of the film's tension. Sure, Jeff Grace's string heavy score nails the audio side of things (unless there are any surprises in store, this is the best horror score I've heard all year) and there is never a shadow out of place thanks to Eliot Rockett's engrossing cinematography, but the audience is given so many little reasons (and so much time) to care for Samantha that the desire to see her come out of that looming house in one piece trumps all of the meticulously-designed horror conventions at play.
And though the clear star of the film is Donahue, her performance is equally matched by Tom Noonan, who flawlessly captures the constrained menace of an old man with a secret. West's script never gives us a clear glimpse into why he's such an off-axis threat, and yet from the second we hear Noonan's voice we know the character is implacable. And it's this innate, deftly nostalgic kinship between what we see and what we expect that elevates The House of the Devil beyond being just a noble throwback.
Yes, it fell out of a wormhole, but regardless of the 'when' the film evokes, this is still a fantastic horror film. There's no prerequisite to have an intimate understanding of the Satanic Panic films of the late '70s and early '80s, no need to qualify the film as good simply because of the re-creation it undertakes. This is a wonderful white-knuckler that holds up triumphantly to repeat viewings thanks to the fascinating bag of tricks Ti West has up his sleeve. Certain demographics might not get into its carrot-on-a-stick pacing, but genuine horror fans will instantly realize how special of a film House of the Devil is.