Listen Up: The Fixx, the Devil and the Dancing Babysitter
Much about the movie The House of the Devil seems utterly unlikely. For starters, there’s how—in the era of the Saw franchise’s unrelenting torture-porn—writer/director/editor Ti West lets his movie simmer at a maddeningly low heat for much of its 93-minute runtime, slowly and unapologetically building to its sublimely terrifying end. There’s how I—who had my first panic attack at age 11 while watching Jumanji in the theater with my parents and sister on New Years Eve and have only recently begun to break myself of an enduring aversion to movies that might potentially disturb me in any way—not only sat through the entirety of the film, literally writhing in suspense-induced pain and several times pulling bed-covers over my head, but actually loved it. And then there’s how one of its most gut-wrenchingly tense scenes involves a dancing babysitter, a Walkman and a cassette copy of The Fixx’s 1983 hit “One Thing Leads to Another.”
The dancing babysitter is a college girl named Samantha, and because The House of the Devil is nothing if not a loving (albeit incredibly smart) homage to the ridiculousness of 1980s horror flicks, she’s doing the dancing and the babysitting at a gigantic, creaky, gingerbread-corniced manse out in the middle of East Bumble, Ct. Why she is there, and whether or not her duties actually involve any children whatsoever, is something that you will need to watch the movie for yourself to find out; fortunately, it’s streaming on Netflix, so you can do this very easily.
Samantha (played by Jocelin Donahue, pictured above) is incredibly likable; she is quiet and tidy and conscientious. Her best friend, Megan, played by Greta Gerwig, is also very affable. (And so, even before the real creepiness takes hold, a dark pall is cast over the movie. Two incredibly likable young female characters in a horror flick? This cannot end well.) Samantha spends much of the movie’s opening scenes walking around her college campus, bundled up against some early-winter chill, headphones strapped over her floppy toboggan; the movie never announces what year it’s set in, but the Walkman she carries around in the front pocket of her puffy ski-jacket and Megan’s acid-washed jeans and the waxy “Enjoy Coke!” cups the girls later drink out of at the campus pizza joint all point to it being sometime in the mid-1980s.
The movie also never announces what music that Samantha is listening to on that Walkman (unless she also happens to be listening to Jeff Grace’s eerie score, which plays over the early shots of her strolling on campus) and what a relief that is. I’m not sure I realized until now how utterly bored I am now with so many recent movies’ habit of telegraphing supposedly-essential information about its characters and/or intended overall aesthetic values via its soundtrack choices; much like Saw has primed horror audiences to expect a certain quota of bloody scares, much like scary-movie fanatics know to rue the fate of the likable babysitter, Garden State has made me squirm in my seat whenever I see a pretty girl wearing headphones on screen, in fear that she will soon be inflicting some unsuspecting guy with her supposedly life-changing favorite band.
Not that subverting this was West’s intention, of course. What the music—or the non-music, really—does here is build up a sense of Samantha’s isolation from the world; not only is she walking around with her ears cloistered off from everything, but in those earliest scenes, she’s almost completely alone on the sidewalks and hallways of her campus. It looks so peaceful, so quiet and unhurried. But it’s also discomfiting, because you know it won’t last. You know something is coming. And The House of the Devil knows you know that something is coming, and it knows—or hopes, at least—that you will wait it out, that you will have the patience it has, that you will squirm and fidget and grit your teeth through every slow-ratcheting moment of building, creeping doom, every painful second edging towards some kind of magnificent, horrific catharsis.
I’ve read that some pregnant women, when they hit a certain point in their ninth month and they haven’t yet gone into labor, begin to fear that they are actually going to be pregnant for the remainder of their lives. That their baby will never pop out. That they will remain bloated, whale-like creatures in suspended gestation for all time. This is how I was feeling more than halfway through the movie, when Samantha—having arrived at the titular house, having actually become as isolated from the world as she appeared to be earlier in the film, having suspected that some weirdness was afoot, having decided to stick it out anyway and having tired of the standard babysitter routine of channel-surfing and homework-working—pulls out her Walkman, changes cassettes and pulls on her headphones.
Who knows what was on the other tape, what she was listening to earlier, but after a plasticky click of the play button, we finally get to hear something of her personal soundtrack—here, in the creepiest house, on the darkest night, in the midst of the thickest suspense, she throws on the swooping, bopping “One Thing Leads to Another” and proceeds to tear through the house on a wild dancing spree, jogging up the shadowy staircase, arms and elbows flailing, eyes closed tight as she boogies down the hall. The movie has been so taut, the soundtrack so placidly creepy and Samantha so utterly composed up to this point that the outburst is actually funny—but only for a moment, only until the thick, dark sludge of panic it pushed aside has time to slide back in. She’s just trying to dance her fears away, but her forced glibness seems like such an affront to the mostly-peaceful terror that has been building and building that the fear comes back two-fold. You start scanning the corridors she’s skipping down, watching the corners for any dark figures that might step out, studying the shadows for blank faces to emerge—as if you could warn her.
Watching the scene, I desperately wanted someone to tell me whether something does or doesn’t jump out, but probably would have been furious if someone had actually told me, so I will just say that the song proves oddly portentous; after the hour-plus slow-burning buildup, one thing really does lead to another, and the dancing inadvertently sets off the movie’s screaming, howling, heart-shaking, monstrous and hard-earned final third. Seeing how it plays out, one must assume that it would have happened any which way, Fixx or no Fixx—but then again, the whole movie could have happened any which way, too. It’s not the idea of the movie that makes The House of the Devil work, or its obvious sentiments about the genre; it’s all in West’s execution, his restraint, his skirting of sloppy telegraphing and cheap tricks for uncanny patience and one incredibly well-used goofy pop song. If you appreciate those things, or if you just want to spend an hour and a half of your life in suspense-induced psychic distress, I can’t recommend it enough.
Rachael Maddux is Paste’s associate editor. Her column appears at PasteMagazine.com every Monday.
Listen to “One Thing Leads to Another” by The Fixx:
Watch the trailer for The House of the Devil: