By Eric D. Snider (reprint from 5/3/2009 -- Tribeca Film Festival)
The House of the Devil is a great name for a movie. It hearkens back to the days of grindhouse horror, when a film's title and its trailer told you basically everything you needed to know. Yet it's different from those movies, too, in that it prefers slow-building tension over frequent bloodletting and mayhem. You have to wait for "The House of the Devil" to deliver on its promises -- but when it does, holy crap. I know that isn't a very scholarly analysis, but seriously. Holy crap.
The film is set in the early 1980s, apparently, with appropriately synthesized rock on the soundtrack and lots of freeze-frames in the opening credits. Our perky young heroine, Samantha (Jocelin Donahue), is a college student who's sick of living in the dorms and is preparing to move into an apartment with her friend Megan (Greta Gerwig). Eager to earn some money to facilitate the move, Samantha responds to a flier posted on a campus bulletin board looking for a babysitter. Rather suspiciously (to me, anyway), the flier is blank except for a phone number and the words "BABYSITTER WANTED."
The clients are the Ulmans -- Mr. Ulman (Tom Noonan) is a tall, gentle-voiced man who uses a walking stick; his wife (Mary Woronov) is old-school sophisticated, a woman whose evening wear requires fur. Samantha learns when she arrives at the house -- a huge old isolated place, I needn't tell you -- that the babysitting duties will be slightly different from the norm, but it's not a deal-breaker. And the Ulmans are offering a lot of money.