‘The House of the Devil’: Satanic-Panic in Style

Before I get into the topic at hand today, first we need a quick history lesson:

In the early 1980s, a wave of reports swept the United States, Canada, and many parts of Europe, alleging supposedly occult explanations and causes for a wide range of different crimes and abuse scandals. Dubbed the “Satanic Panic” by the media, largely in retrospect, this rise in religious hysteria hasn’t been attributed fully to one particular cause or another, rather being fueled by a number of sources in government, the media, and, obviously, the church. Think Q-Anon, only somehow dumber. It was basically the bastard offspring of centuries-old Puritan witch-hunts and the anti-communist McCarthyism of the 1950s, all rolled up into one convenient, ridiculous little craze.

Satanic cults and rituals were being blamed for nearly everything, from simple acts of vandalism and break-ins, all the way up to and cases of murder and severe child abuse. Rumors spread like wildfire of secret, clandestine groups of devil-worshippers who had infiltrated every aspect of modern life and whose plans ranged from a global sex-trafficking ring to baby cannibalism to the old standby, world domination. I guess people were just bored enough in the 80s to roll with that kind of nonsense, because there were over 12,000 formally documented cases in the US alone, with naturally none of them turning up any sign of supposed cultists as the culprits behind the mayhem. And this was all pre-internet.

And, as is always the case with these things, horror films received a great deal of the blame by the more morally-righteous of those behind the accusations. That is, when they weren’t busy blaming hair metal music or “the drugs.” You know the drill: “Of COURSE people are worshipping Satan these days! I mean have you seen the filth they allow in the movies? All that blood and violence?” Pretty much anything that wasn’t a G-rated kids film at the time (and frankly even some of those as well) were being blamed by one overzealous group of concerned parents or another, with slasher films and other gory fare sharing the brunt of the negative attention. If it had blood, bad language, or breasts, then it was surely being accused of corrupting the moral fiber of the nation.

So with all that happening in on the cultural stage, I’m amazed it took as long as it did for the panic to be addressed in an actual horror film. Horror, as we’ve established by this point, is a very socially conscious, reactive genre, one that always has a tendency to incorporate and poke fun at contemporary trends in politics and greater society. And sure, there were films that incorporated the idea of malevolent cults in their plots following the craze that were surely inspired by it, but none really engaging with the idea directly, either satirically or otherwise. Nothing major, anyway. Nothing in the mainstream, in the zeitgeist. Perhaps they didn’t want to poke the bear too much, so to speak, and bring down the judgmental eye of the media on the genre anymore than it already was. Or maybe there was just a general consensus to ignore it, and hope that it would eventually just go away on its own if it was allowed to play out. Either way, Satan himself may have appeared in horror films at the time, but meta, real-world references to the scare were largely unheard of.

It wasn’t until 2009 when a horror film would really dig down and explore the era of Satanic Panic as a major plot point, with the release of Ti West’s criminally underrated little movie called The House of the Devil. West, who also released the equally underpraised and lesser-known gems The Sacrament and The Innkeepers, writes and directs this fantastically atmospheric half-slasher, half-haunted house flick that directly tackles the all the fear and paranoia that plagued pop culture on the national stage at the time the film takes place (which is some nondescript point in the early 80s).

The film builds its framework around a very simple, timeless premise: A young, college-age woman named Samantha responds to an ad for a babysitting job and finds herself spending the night at a creepy, isolated mansion. The couple who hired her explains that they have no children, but that Samantha will instead be watching the husband’s elderly mother. As you’d expect, what follows is a night of terror and mayhem for the poor girl as she uncovers more and more information about the strange family she’s suddenly found herself hired by.

West chooses to broach the topic head-on and play it relatively straight, treating it as a genuine phenomenon and a real threat to the characters in the film. It’s not only a wonderful usage of some very real, very cinematically-ridiculous retro subject matter, it’s also a brilliant homage to the very films at the time that fed into the craze. From the cinematography to the wardrobe and set design screams 80s, in the best way possible. It feels like a period piece, an actual relic from the era, despite being shot in the late 2000s. There’s subtle homages and references to everything from Black Christmas to The Amityville Horror to the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, whose styles and thematic elements directly helped to fuel the very idea of satanic undertones in film in the first place.

But clever social commentary and borderline self-fellating horror movie references alone do not necessarily make a good movie. No, you still need the actual narrative and stylistic elements of the film to actually carry the weight of the intended thematic content. Which, luckily, The House of the Devil delivers on bigtime. This is a remarkably effective horror film. It’s got a great mystery-thriller framework that the rest of the film’s more directly-scary and supernatural elements build off of to great effect. The secrets hidden in the film are unveiled at an excellent, tensely suspenseful pace, feeding you just as much information as you need to get by without spoonfeeding you all at once with a pace-killing exposition dump. Roger Ebert, in his review of the film, expressed that he thought it was a perfect introduction to Hitchcokian suspense, and I think that’s an accurate description.

Very much in vein with the films that it takes visual inspiration from, it’s violent only when it’s necessary, shocking you just when you’re at your most relaxed. There’s a jumpscare in here that I won’t spoil that made me nearly throw my laptop to the ground the first time I saw it years ago. It’s the right balance between spooky and outright scary that makes for an impressively effective viewing experience.

The cast is great as well, with lead Jocelin Donahue carrying the bulk of the film’s tension and emotional weight on her shoulders like a champ. Tom Noonan plays the skin-crawlingly creepy Mr. Ulman, while a pre-Oscar-nominated Greta Gerwing rounds out the cast as Samantha’s goofy best friend Megan.

I have virtually no complaints about The House of the Devil. It’s a restrained, low-stakes horror film that ramps up its craziness at exactly the right times and hits all the right beats to be a truly memorable and fun horror romp. It may not do anything groundbreaking or overly-original, but it uses its familiar elements expertly, creating a uniquely interesting and quasi-topical piece of horror entertainment out of some real-life insanity.

I should also add that as an added bonus, it also has some excellent musical choices, introducing me to The Fixx’s “One Thing Leads to Another” far later in life than I should have been made aware of them.

Have you seen The House of the Devil? If so, what did you think? Let me know in the comments!

And, as always, Happy Halloween!

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