The House of the Devil

Hello, my darling horror freaks. I hope you’re in the mood for a lesson because I’m talking about the Satanic Panic and a yummy little B-horror nugget that you may not have heard about. Tonight, I’m deconstructing The House of the Devil [2009, directed by Ti West]. West also directed another awesome flick that I’ll write up one day, The Innkeepers. But first, back to devil worship and the 1980’s.

A brief history

In order to really understand this film, we’ll have a brief-ish history lesson. You may have seen, for example, Rosemary’s Baby and thought, “WTF, no one really believed that cults were secretly running the country, right?” Wrong. People are very stupid. Like the Mad Gasser of Mattoon, the meowing nuns, and the Salem witch trials, it doesn’t take much to send people into a mass panic that ruins lives.

During the 1970’s and 80’s, many revivalists, evangelical Christians, and anyone in a place of religious power who wanted more, starting promoting a belief that satanic cults were working behind the scenes to kidnap, torture, rape, and sacrifice babies, young children, and ladies. Did some small groups of people exist who dug up bodies in cemeteries for dark ceremonies? Certainly. Did all of the cases of suggested satanic cult crimes actually happen?

No.

No.

No.

No they did not.

To quote Jeffrey S. Victor, author of Satanic Panic: The Creation of a Contemporary Legend, these fears were born and thrived in rural areas and small towns due to “collective anxieties caused by economic stress and family deterioration, affecting […] blue collar families. The metaphorical language of the rumors tells the story of families whose world is falling apart and whose ideals are being threatened by dark forces. These underlying sources of stress are being inflamed by vested interests, which gain income, members or audiences by exaggerating fears about satanic group activities” (p45-6).

Yeah… sound familiar?

Final tidbit: here is a link to an informative training video for law enforcement on how to identify “different types of cultic degeneracy.” Be sure to stick around for the “former satanic priest” with a power-mullet who equates satanic and cult activity with “the homosexual community.” As he says, “Interestingly enough they go hand in hand.”

I mean, for the love of Christ. That video is from 1994.

Everyone take a cleansing breath. Ahhhh. Ok, onto the flick.

This is a slow burn and probably not for everyone. But if you like a heavy dose of art with your horror, settle in and give it a chance.

They said a ping came from deep space

West uses a very precise aesthetic for this film. We know we are in the early 80’s, not just from the wardrobe, but the grainy film technique, including method and technology, he uses to shoot. And I have to call to attention the title splash that hits the screen – so grindhouse theater!

The score is full of syntho-sounds, which really emphasize humanity’s fear of the unknown. There’s a parallel between the fear of what could be out there in the darkness (satanic cult activity) and deep space. The town where this takes place, which sort of looks like Boston, is obsessed with the imminent lunar eclipse. It’s a weird thing for a town to be obsessed with; lunar eclipses, while fascinating to the space-minded, are not that spectacular. The moon gets a shadow across it for a few hours and then it clears. But bulletin board flyers, the radio, and the local pizza joint are all advertising the event.

Something about the synth-y soundtrack backdrops the weirdness very well. One of the strengths of this flick, like 70’s-80’s horror movies, is the off-kilter nature of it. Most of the conversations are off-beat. Something’s just not right.

  • Mr. Ulman tells Samantha and Megan that they “just arrived in town recently,” yet their house is stocked full of stuff. Like a ton of stuff. Like a family home from 30 years ago. Also, there are no real signs of hobbies or interests, almost like people just fell out of the sky and took up shop here.
  • He also tells them that he’s been very busy due to the eclipse. Aaaand offers no follow-up to that.
  • Mr. Ulman has bizarre speech patterns:
    • He says, “ad-VERT-izz-ments” instead of advertisements.
    • Of Samantha’s college experience, he says, “And now you’ve gone to University.” Like he’s European.
    • He says, “I’ll be back in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.”
  • He also actually brings up the satanic panic to the two girls.

The woman and the devil

What I find the most fascinating in movies like this and Rosemary’s Baby is the way the script is flipped. I don’t mean flipping the script like Buffy, killing the monster stalking her. I mean that these girls are aware of the danger and they note their warning instincts, and still they fall victim to these dark deeds. Are these movies cautionary tales or are they just showing the truth of being a woman in the world?

Our protagonist is Samantha, a young college woman trying to live an independent life with a world working against her and no money in the bank. I love, love, love how Samantha is never sexualized. This is about a human being who is a woman, not a sexualized doll with cognizance.

How to survive a satanic cult when you’re babysitting: a guide

I want to point out moments where Samantha screwed up. And I feel comfortable doing this because as a woman, I’ve totally done some of these things, and I’d say most women have. We are conditioned by society and the patriarchy to do so from birth. We’re polite when we refuse a bar creep who just really wants to buy us a drink. We apologize when we aren’t sorry, or before asking a question. We allow other people to talk about our bodies and appearances as if it’s not a big deal. We are used to older men (and women) referring to us as “girls.” I think this film is banking on these moments because it is Samantha’s story, her mistakes, and her choices that lead to an absolutely bonkers ending.

Right. I have some tips for Samantha and all those other ladies out there who want to stay sexy and not get murdered:

  • After calling the “Babysitter Wanted” number, Samantha agrees to meet Mr. Ulman immediately on campus. Because that’s not weird. She waits around for hours and he doesn’t show. Bail here, girly.
  • She is still interested in babysitting when he calls her back, and she makes the mistake of saying, “That’s ok, I really need the money.” NEVER EVER tell someone in a position over you that you really need money.
  • She lets herself get played again in this phone call when Mr. Ulman says, “thank you! You’re saving me.” She knows he’s playing her. He knows he’s playing her.
  • Against all screaming instincts and the warnings of her best friend, she takes the job. (sidebar: Boooo bad best friend behavior – she left her friend alone at that house!)
  • After she gets to the house and Mr. Ulman is a total creep (“it’s an honor… you’re both very beautiful girls.”), she tells Mr. Ulman that she doesn’t have a car, and her friend will pick her up later. WHY. WHY WOULD YOU TELL HIM THAT.
  • Mr. Ulman makes a physical start toward her and she gets spooked. She then says to him, “That’s ok, you’re not being rude.”
  • He says he’s willing to pay $300+ for watching his elderly mother. Why? That is a ton of money even now, definitely back in the early 80’s. If you’re being offered hundreds of dollars to do a simple task, GTFO.
  • Also, the fact that he says he has an able-bodied mother who is elderly and needs a watchful eye is a red flag. This guy is like mid-to-late-70’s. Like, how old would his mother have to be?
  • Mr. Ulman says to her, “You have to understand. I have only the best intentions.” Uh huh. Ladies, a quick poll – raise your hand if you’ve heard this?
  • She doesn’t ask to meet his mother who she is supposedly babysitting. Not just for creep-checking, but if this was an actual gig, she would need to meet the woman in the chance of an emergency.
  • At one point, Samantha dances around with her headphones on. Bad! No! She hasn’t checked out the house or (my favorite phrase, if you’ve been reading for a while), secured a perimeter. She looks around the house vaguely but doesn’t really snoop. She should have.

I could go on, but I think you get it. Samantha has moments of silence and passivity. Unfortunately for all of us ladies, men and society will always use this against us. Please let me be clear: this is not her fault – I’m not victim blaming here. Was it her fault that she was drugged and used in a satanic ritual? No, of course not. Did she have some warning signs? Yes, yes she did. This film is using real-world examples to horrify, instead of having us viewers scream at a blonde on screen, “Don’t go into the basement! An iPhone isn’t a flashlight!”

The film spends most of its screen time showing how desperate Samantha is for a more secure life, and how she thinks that just because she is independent, no harm can fall on her. So, I hereby submit that The House of the Devil is intended to be a feminist statement, a warning of passivity and the havoc that is always waiting in a graveyard to shoot you in the face while you try to light a cigarette.

“Grab the pizza knife! Stab his ass!” (me, with a mouth full of potatoes)

Right around the final 30 minute mark – almost exactly – the movie shows its hand. We see the bodies of the house’s real owners lying dead and butchered around a bloody inverted pentagram. From here, the pace quickens dramatically. We already have felt like we’re plummeting towards disaster when Samantha’s best friend/ride is shot in the face in the graveyard. And now, we see her dialing the number Mr. Ulman gave her for ordering a pizza. We see her accept this mystery pizza from a sketchy guy on the porch, and then we watch her walk away from the front door instead of watching to make sure the guy leaves.

I really liked how much of a germ freak Samantha is. She puts down toilet paper on foreign toilet seats. She only drinks out of her own water bottle, instead of using a house glass. But she still accepts pizza from a strange number on the fridge that Mr. Ulman told her to call. He actually tells her 3 times (not a warning sign at all). When it tastes funny, she doesn’t make herself puke, just washes her mouth out. She doesn’t flee the house when she finds a photo of the house’s owners and sees that the Ulman’s do not belong there.

And then, we go from slow burn to combustion. This ending is bananas! Elderly mother Ulman is some kind of witchy crone with a malformed face who leaves a serious amount of body hair in the tub. Mrs. Ulman is actually bald, possibly terminally ill. They perform a ritual on Samantha, draw in blood on her belly, pour witchy crone blood down her mouth, cut her arm. This implies (I think) that they’ve magically impregnated her with the antichrist.

Some of you might disagree with me, but I still see the ending as a victory for this Final Girl: Samantha has been drugged, stripped, sliced open, drawn on with blood, force-fed blood, killed 3 out of 4 of her tormentors, and shot in the head (albeit self-inflicted), and still survives. She still has the spawn of Satan in her guts, but she is alive. I’m not condoning her suicide attempt here, just saying “hell yeah” that this woman survives the worst night of her life. Y’all know I love a Final Girl. But this super needs a better ending. I propose the following:

With the camera pulled way back to show most of the graveyard, Mr. Ulman staggers out to chase after Samantha. He tells her to stop, maybe some nonsense that she has been made a part of something greater than herself. The moon is red and dark. She raises the gun, and at a distance shoots Mr. Ulman in the face. He collapses. She turns around and limps towards the road to flag down some help.

Ah well, you can’t get everything in life. And you definitely don’t get everything you want in a feminist horror flick directed by a man. But we’ll keep trying for it.

Have you seen this? Do you think it deserves my (semi)praise? Share your thoughts!

Until next time.

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