It first caught my attention because it looks like a love-letter to 80s horror, but that's a trick! There's nothing of the simplicity of those babysitter exploitation films here. This is a very modern horror movie all dressed up in costume to look like our rose-coloured nostalgia. It's not a tribute, it's a period piece. Everything about it feels exactly the way you remember 80s horror looking, but there were no actual movies like this in the 80s. House of the Devil is beautiful and measured, and it benefits from a more modern sensibility in camera work and especially in its pacing and attention to character.
I was drawn to The House of the Devil because the retro setting and look, but I loved it because it was so careful and subtle and effortlessly charming. Tom Noonan, in particular, demonstrates how creepy gentleness and kindness can be. He is soft spoken and humble even as he explains to the main character that she has been called out to this creepy house in the middle of nowhere to babysit a child that doesn't exist. There is no child. Instead, he explains, he needs someone to watch his grandmother. It is hard to not like him, despite knowing that this is a crazy suspicious thing that he's done. And that makes his kindness all the more creepy. You can't help but thinking oh shit, this is how serial killers get people into their creepy murder vans! They're super charming and you start thinking, "Oh just one look in the murder van will be okay. I don't want to let him down."
It's a slow movie, but it never drags. The main character is so likeable that it's nice to just spend time with her, to order pizza and dance around with walkman headphones on. And there is always just one more slightly off detail to promise that the end is coming. Ti West knows that anticipating violence is scarier than violence itself, but he also seems to understand that if you are going to be wandering around a spooky house for 90 minutes, then a) there better actually be something batshit crazy behind one of these doors at some point, and b) it is important to have a character who we want to wander around an empty house with. The main actor Jocelin Donahue conveys charm and intelligence in a role that requires very little speaking. It is never boring, following her as she tries to figure out what is going on.
And how can you not love a movie that sent out its review copies on VHS in a proper white plastic case and everything?