One of the rules by which I select film festival offerings - probably the rule above all others, in fact - is to never see a film that I know is going to open near me within the near future ("near future" = "by the end of December", for most purposes). But as everyone knows, I loves me the horror films, so I broke my Cardinal Rule in order to get a three-week jump on The House of the Devil, writer-director Ti West's homage to the both the style and the matter of '80s Satanic death cult films. I find that this wasn't the worst choice ever, but I think I'd be a bit peeved if I had been on the fence about seeing anything else in the same slot. It's a fun movie and reasonably well-assembled, but certainly not one of the gems of the fest.

So, it's sometime in the early 1980s, and an East Coast college student named Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) is facing both the best of times and the worst of times: she's just stumbled across an absolute steal of an apartment with a really nice old landlady (Dee Wallace), but even a steal costs some money, and Samantha isn't certain where she's going to scrounge up $300 for the first month's deposit, due a scant five days in the future. Luck intervenes with an ad for a babysitting gig, though she has a bit of a hard time getting in touch with the man offering the job. Flash forward to that evening, and Samantha hitches a ride from her good (and seemingly only) friend Megan (Greta Gerwig, a familiar face from the Mumblecore family of indie films) out to a home in the very posh, very isolated suburbs.

If things have been a touch "off" so far, they get altogether unsettling when Samantha is greeted by Mr. Ulman, who we know to be creepy because he is played by Tom Noonan. (Ditto for his wife, played by Mary Woronov). It turns out that there is no baby to be sat; the Ulmans are actually looking for someone to be in the house just in case something happens with Mrs. Ulman's aged mother. Samantha is about ready to bolt, but the $400 that Mr. Ulman offers is quite a persuasive argument, and so she stays put, even though she and we know in our bones that there is something distinctly not that right about all this, what with the Ulmans' vague way of answering questions about what they do or where they're going - but it all has something to do with that night's full lunar eclipse.

To be fair, though, we have much better reason for our suspicions than Samantha, since we saw Megan get shot in the head in a cemetery by a young bearded man with crazy eyes (A.J. Bowen), who first asks if she is "the babysitter".

At this point, we've more than third though I believe a bit less than a half, into a 90 minute film, which tells us this about The House of the Devil: it is slow-moving. I do not say this as an insult. I think one of the hardest and the most rewarding things to do with a horror film is the slow boil: start off with a good ten minutes that are quite pedestrian and normal, and only slowly add in elements that suggest a certain deadly Something lying in wait. And once the Ulmans have left, The House of the Devil is not nearly done turning up the heat. There's still a protracted sequence of Samantha poking around their house, at first just because she's nosy, but more and more because she spots things that don't quite gel with what her employers told her before they headed out for the night. And let me tip my hat to Ti West, for he made this sequence pretty damn suspenseful. The gentlest application of noises made by unseen things, and plenty of claustrophobic camera angles and excessively dark rooms start to add up after a while to a faintly unbearable level of dread. Admittedly, he spoils things a bit with a mostly random and wholly needless cutaway to a locked room with three ritually massacred bodies splayed on the floor - the only shot in the whole movie that isn't yoked to either Samantha's or Megan's POV - but in the main, this is a pretty successful horror exercise for those of us who like our terror to come from the slooooow building of atmosphere, rather than rotted CGI corpses jumping out from behind things at acute angles, cf. this film's Fest-mate The Eclipse.

Unfortunately, as is the nature for atmosphere-based horror cinema, things take a swift turn for the shitter once Samantha starts to figure out what's going on, and the last 25 minutes of The House of the Devil aren't anywhere near the level of especially the second act: just a bunch of running and screaming and running a bit more. Better films and better filmmakers have managed to miss sticking their landing, so I can't say that I'm surprised; a touch disappointed, no doubt, but not surprised.

As a work of craft, the film is first and above all meant to look like it was made in 1982 or 1983, and at this it is almost without fail successful. Filmed on modern 16mm, it can't quite hope to replicate the peculiar, highly characteristic color profile of the film stock low-budget filmmakers were using from around 1979 and to sometime in the mid-'80s, but nor does it look like a movie shot anytime near 2009. And the compositions and zooms are certainly note-perfect; West and his cinematographer Eliot Rockett unquestionably came to set ready to play, and very few films of the last several years designed to look like they were made 20 or 30 years earlier have this film's fine attention to the details of what that entails. The dialogue, clothing, sets - everything contributes to that period feeling. It's quite marvelous, really, for a film this small. Best of all, this attention to period detail does not take the place of attending to what details would best serve the drama; and thus does the universe-building first act chug along with none of the glacial dullness of the film's role models.

I'd really love to say that I love the film because of all this; but damn, that ending is a train-wreck. And even before that, it's a very effective suspense film, but no masterpiece: certainly I never ever care about Samantha qua Samantha in any sense other than as the person whose perspective carries me into this creepy old house. As a pastiche, The House of the Devil is infinitely scarier than its precursors, and yet it shares with them a complete lack of heart. It's certainly a likable horror movie, and an easy recommendation for a horror fan, but not something I expect to return to all that often.

7/10