The film may be, superficially, a Grindhouse-style homage to '80s horror (there's even an opening credit sequence with freeze frames!), but what's great about The House Of The Devil has little to do with nostalgia for giant Walkmans or feathered hair. Though the flick does benefit from the lack of cellphone talk and star Jocelin Donahue's ass-flattering jeans, it's hard to recall a film from the era it pays tribute to that was so successfully suspenseful.
Donahue plays Samantha, an agreeable, cash-strapped college student (and we learn only as much about her as the plot requires). Financial salvation comes from a flyer advertising a babysitting gig, which leads to a suspicious game of phone tag with her would-be employer (pay phones! Remember them?) and a ride down a dark road to a big, creepy house, where Samantha learns she'll actually be watching an old lady hiding in the attic. Despite her sensible friend's concern and the obvious sketchiness of her employers (legendary creeps Tom Noonan - who must have been paid by the unnerving pause - and Mary Woronov), Samantha takes the job. Her mistake.
Providing just enough violence to guarantee a sinister outcome, West does a masterful job of building tension throughout. There's an eerie sterility to the screen compositions; we're always conscious of the empty space around the Samantha, the ominous lack of activity. Donahue plays the virgin as if she's just one steady boyfriend away from transcending that role, making her vulnerability only more affecting. When she eventually drops her guard, forgetting her mystery charge upstairs and shimmying through the house to Fixx's "One Thing Leads To Another," awaiting her comeuppance may have you climbing the walls.
Though it doesn't lack for striking occult imagery, the film's payoff feels disappointingly formulaic, making The House of The Devil, at best, a minor classic of the genre. But before it reaffirms itself as a tribute to cheapos yore, the film achieves an almost unprecedented degree of anticipation. If only West had found a way to never show us what was behind that door.