Movie review (+ trailer): 'House of the Devil'

Dull 'Devil' worships '80s horror flicks

Low-rental 1980s horror returns with filmmaker Ti West's "The House of the Devil," which scores points for restraint and attention to detail but defaults when the mortgage comes due with a bloody, pointless, uninspired climax.

The movie is 90 percent setup, some of it acutely observed and starkly evocative of the decade in which it's set. Yet much of it is as dull and forgettable as the big-hair '80s.

At the end, when up jumps the devil and his followers at last, West's moderation vanishes in an instant, the movie collapsing into noisy, splotchy, gory mayhem, clumsily stitched together and obscured by strobe-light effects.

On-screen virtually the entire movie, newcomer Jocelin Donahue comes off as a bit stiff and detached, though her character, college sophomore Sam, is refreshingly more assertive and inquisitive than the genre's usual airhead victims.

Writer-director West offers a prolonged buildup as Sam finds the perfect apartment she can't afford with a maternal landlady (Dee Wallace). She then stumbles onto a campus flier for a baby-sitting gig offered by the Ulmans (Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov).

It's painfully clear Sam should skip this job. The Ulmans are weird, suspiciously desperate and live in the middle of nowhere. There are odd phone exchanges with the creepy-voiced Mr. Ulman, who stands up Sam on a face-to-face meeting and then agrees to pay her excessively for a few hours work.

Sam's pal Megan (Greta Gerwig) tells her to blow off the Ulmans, who eventually reveal that it's not exactly a baby sitter they need. And the whole thing is even more foreboding for taking place on the night of a lunar eclipse.

But Noonan and Woronov manage to temper the strangeness of the Ulmans, making the couple seem more genteel and eccentric than crazy and bloodthirsty.

Of course, we know they are crazy and bloodthirsty, and just in case we doubt that, West tosses in an accomplice (AJ Bowen) who carries out one explosively violent act that breaks up the monotony of the movie's long, dry prelude.

We know from the title, the shots of the lunar eclipse and a few clunky clues West weaves in that the Ulman clan are devil worshippers on a deadline. Satan needs to hire a better staff, though, given how bad these followers are at their jobs.

They outnumber their petite victim and could have overpowered her the moment she walked in the door. Instead, they drag the night out, allowing her free run of the house, giving her ample opportunity to discover their intentions and escape.

Sam spends most of the night meandering about, leaving most of "House of the Devil" about as fun as watching a baby sitter, well, meander about.

The retro touches are nice throwbacks to the '80s - feathered hair, a portable cassette player the size of a brick, dirty old pay phones in pre-mobile days, even a rotary-dial phone.

In the end, this homage to '80s horror is little more than a faithful flashback - authentic in execution but about as scary as something you saw again and again way back when.


Two stars

STARRING: Jocelin Donahue, Dee Wallace, Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov

RATED: R for some bloody violence

RUNNING TIME: 1 hour, 33 minutes