The Best Horror Movie of 2009: The House of the Devil

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The Best Horror Movie of 2009: The House of the Devil

This post is part of Paste’s Century of Terror project, a countdown of the 100 best horror films of the last 100 years, culminating on Halloween. You can see the full list in the master document, which will collect each year’s individual film entry as it is posted.

The Year

The decade comes to a close in strong fashion, with an eclectic slate of films that accurately represent everything going on in 2000s horror: Above average studio fare (Zombieland, Drag Me to Hell), crazy or audacious indie stuff (The Loved Ones, Triangle, Antichrist) and the occasional international film (Thirst) to spice things up. All in all, practically every sub-genre is represented here, although part of that is due to the overall rise in horror titles—as the streaming era well and truly begins, there are now more avenues than ever to watch these movies, especially low-budget horror films. Within a few more years, “direct-to-VOD” will become the standard for much low-budget horror fare, replacing the direct-to-video era driven by physical rentals.

Awarding this year to Zombieland in the #1 spot certainly seems like it would be a valid move, at least in terms of the splash the horror comedy made in 2009, becoming the highest-grossing zombie film of all time (at least until World War Z, bleh). And indeed, in a world where Shaun of the Dead hadn’t been released in 2004, the arrival of Zombieland would likely have felt like a revelation in horror comedy, but with that previous classic’s attitude to guide it, the result here was merely a very entertaining time at the movies. Benefitting from perfect casting, especially in the form of a playfully deranged Woody Harrelson, Zombieland was perfectly positioned to ride the cresting zombie wave in pop culture, which would lead to the pilot episode of The Walking Dead in 2010. The next few years represent Peak Zombie, at least in terms of the density of releases, especially indie ones.

Drag Me to Hell is another strong effort with a bit more intent at genuine fright behind it, although Sami Raimi’s direction almost can’t help but embrace a certain sense of dark humor—it’s essentially baked into his identity as an artist at this point, and whatever he does carries a wry humor with it. In particular, he seems bound and determined to gross out his audience as much as possible in this particular story, displaying what comes off as either an oral fixation or a commentary on protagonist Christine’s subtextual eating disorder, depending how you look at it. Tonally positioned like a lost chapter in the Evil Dead saga, sans some of the blood and guts, it was a welcome return to the horror genre for the director after years of focusing on Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man.

Not to be forgotten is the exceedingly twisty indie horror-thriller Triangle, a film with a title that doesn’t quite do its complexity justice. Feeling quite a bit like a more horrific version of Spanish director Nacho Vigalondo’s underseen time-travel thriller Timecrimes, Triangle is a mystery set on an abandoned ocean liner, where literally nothing is as it first appears. Trying to describe this particular film is an effort in futility—suffice to say, if Möbius strip movies are your thing, this one is essential.

Other notables for this frame include Jennifer’s Body, which was derided upon release but reclaimed by critics in recent years, along with the revival of the “Nazi zombie” genre in Dead Snow and the bizarre blend of sex and pop-science found in Vincenzo Natali’s Splice. This is certainly not a year lacking in variety.

2009 Honorable Mentions: Zombieland, The Loved Ones, Drag Me to Hell, Triangle, Thirst, Jennifer’s Body, REC 2, Antichrist, Orphan, Dead Snow, Survival of the Dead, Splice, Friday the 13th

The Film: The House of the Devil
Director: Ti West

It’s difficult to discuss The House of the Devil without acknowledging its clear inspirations, a plethora of 1970s and 1980s horror films that range from Rosemary’s Baby and The Wicker Man to The Devil Rides Out or Night of the Demons. This is by intent—director Ti West is by no means trying to avoid these conversations and comparisons, although The House of the Devil doesn’t truly reference any of them TOO directly. Rather, it is suffused with a feeling of creepy familiarity, as if you once saw the film in the long-distant past, or had it described to you by a friend. Babysitters in peril, satanic cults operating in the background, a silent house with a protagonist spending a lonely night by herself … where have I heard all of this before? The film is like a half-remembered dream.

It’s that tone; that creepingly familiar feeling, that makes The House of the Devil an unexpectedly effective, suspenseful exercise in classic horror cinema. It’s the story of a young woman hired to spend a night babysitting at a remote country estate, but when she arrives it’s immediately clear that the clients are not what you’d call conventional parents. In fact, they confide to her, there are no children here at all—her actual duty is to simply mind the house and make sure the family’s “infirm” grandmother is alright, although the job largely consists of simply wiling away the hours and waiting for the owners to return. I guess it’s up to our protagonist’s curiosity to get the best of her, until she’s stalking through the darkened corridors of the home, gradually becoming more suspicious about the odd folks who were so desperate to hire her for the night …

Really, that’s where the film is at its best—it’s able to milk incredible tension out of the simplest of non-activities on screen, like the protagonist waiting for a pizza delivery to arrive, or killing time with a game of billiards. Dialog is minimal, realistic and has a loose, improvisational feeling. The performances are subdued, and the pace is slow and deliberate … right up until it isn’t. Because when The House of the Devil goes off, it goes off with a bang, crossing that line from mumblecore to mumblegore with such suddenness that the transition is likely to make the viewer come out of their seat. It’s a perfectly calculated exercise in patience, and then catharsis—an Old Dark House framework, infused with the vintage paranoia of the 1980s satanic panic.

More than anything, though, The House of the Devil is genuinely pulse-raising—a horror film with the principal intent of actively scaring its audience, not through the use of stab chords and a constant barrage of jump scares, but via the slow building of dread and the sense of inescapable, slowly advancing doom. It’s a voyeuristic sort of experience that alternatingly makes the audience feel like spectators from the outside in, peering through the windows of this old house at a young woman we’re sure is in some kind of peril, or active participants in her increasingly frantic explorations. West ultimately achieves a singular sense of isolation, as if this house were on the dark side of the moon, rather than simply down a dark country road. It’s clear that no help will be arriving for this young woman—she is well and truly alone in this fight, and so are we.

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.

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