Economic Anxiety In The House of The Devil
Ti West’s The House of the Devil is an early classic in the horror throwback cycle of the past decade-and-a-half. Under the charming aesthetics, however, lies a real palpable financial anxiety.
Just before the second act of The House of the Devil begins in earnest, the film’s protagonist Samantha turns to her friend Megan and says, “this one night changes everything.” It’s a line loaded with meaning that Samantha isn’t privy to. To the audience, it means, like the opening of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre warns, that Samantha “could not have expected nor would [she] have wished to see as much of the mad and macabre as [she was] to see that day.”
To Samantha, the line means economic security and a comfortable living situation. This tragic element is one of the things that makes The House of the Devil a compelling watch and a standout in the throwback horror crowd.
Economic issues have informed many notable horror classics. It’s part of the reason the Lutzes are so resistant to leaving their home in The Amityville Horror, it’s why Jack Torrance refuses to leave the Overlook when bad omens appear in the novel version of The Shining, and it’s why the cannibal family from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre resorted to cannibalism after being laid off by the slaughterhouse they worked at.
In a country where the gulf between wealthy and poor widens each year dramatically, and the in-between disappears from view entirely, it’s not uncommon to risk one’s health, safety, and sanity for the alluring promise of economic security.
This brings us back to Samantha, played by Jocelin Donahue. When we meet Samantha, she’s touring an apartment that she loves but can’t afford. Upon returning to her dorm, the unfortunate circumstances of her college living situation are revealed: her roommate monopolizes the room for sexual escapades, and when Samantha finally is let back into her room, she must deal with the snores and leers of her roommate and her boyfriend. As Samantha goes to the communal bathroom to let her feelings pour out, it’s clear that her greatest wish is to leave this toxic living situation.
A Job Too Good to Be True…
A flyer on campus alerts Samantha to a babysitting job that she fixes her sights on, even after an awkward initial inquiry by phone. After the voice on the phone fails to meet her as promised, Samantha goes to her friend Megan, played by a young Greta Gerwig, and laments her money troubles. Megan has a wealthy father and simply suggests Samantha borrow money from him, which Samantha declines.
This exchange is small but does feel like it’s shading in aspects of both their characters. Megan presumably comes from a comfortable life of wealth, and Samantha not, with the implication that Samantha could reach out to her parents but is deciding not to. More than anything, it posits Megan as Samantha’s primary connection to the world, the person keeping her from shutting herself away entirely.
Upon returning home, Samantha finds a message waiting for her. On the other end, a mysterious deep voice tells her she has gotten the babysitting job. Megan drives her out to the house, way in the deep suburbs of Connecticut, but warns her friend against the job, saying it seems suspicious. “They live all the way out here in the country,” Samantha says. “So they’re at least normal enough to have real jobs that pay tons of money.” Megan replies, quite presciently, “you think having lots of money makes you normal?” Here, the film solidifies dueling but equally important central motifs: the idea that wealth is associated with goodness and comfort vs. the subtle menace of the eccentric and wealthy.
It’s almost too easy to think up examples of real-life wealthy eccentrics. One of them wants to go to space and makes a terrible SNL host. Another one was a terrible SNL host and then a terrible president. Both seem at least a little bit evil. One of them may even be the villain of the 2010s, and, all things considered, I’d probably rather hang out with the satanists of this film than Little Donny.
The House Of The Devil is Perfect, Dazzling, and Off-Putting
We can see how far removed this world is from Samantha’s upon arriving at the titular house. It’s huge and suggests that, even at a party, one could find ways to feel isolated in one of the many levels and rooms within. For Samantha, it’s a reassuring sign, but Megan is still skeptical, a skepticism that’s compounded when their host answers the door.
It’s gentle-voiced, 6’5” actor Tom Noonan, the kind of actor that requires no familiarity with his filmography of off-putting villain roles to be frightened of, as Mr. Ulman. Here sporting scraggly old-man hair, an impossibly neat black and white suit, and a wolf-handled cane, almost like a parody of aging wealth and eccentricity. But Noonan’s bizarre gentleness and quiet intensity sell the role and help it overcome any goofy associations it might conjure up.
Sitting with Mr. Ulman, Samantha and Megan navigate an awkward conversation, with Mr. Ulman reverently discussing the upcoming eclipse. Megan asks him if he’s a teacher, and then if he’s an astronomer, to which, both times, he replies with, “no, not exactly.” The response paints Mr. Ulman as a classic wealthy eccentric with enough money that he can afford to live a life full of hobbies. After some awkward back and forth, Mr. Ulman asks Samantha if they can speak privately in the kitchen, leaving Megan alone to raid the candy bowl, filled with the anonymous fruit-flavored chews that conjure instant memories of grandparents’ houses that you don’t even realize you have.
In the kitchen, Mr. Ulman comes clean to Samantha: there is no child to look after, but instead Mr. Ulman’s mother-in-law, an elderly woman who mostly keeps to herself in the attic. It’s another red flag to add to the ever-growing pile, and for the first time, we see Samantha hesitate and rethink her commitment. Until, of course, Mr. Ulman offers her double his initial offer of one hundred dollars.
Samantha, aware that she has negotiating power for the first time, tells Mr. Ulman that she’ll do it for four hundred. The film has effectively alluded to Samantha’s circumstances and needs for money throughout. Still, here she decisively ignores the mounting warnings and omens for the promise of “first month’s rent, and then some.”
Upon learning that Samantha is moving forward with the job, Megan is understandably upset and angry with her friend for deciding to ignore those red flags. It’s easy in this instance to side with Megan, as the red flags are clear and especially red. But there’s also the unspoken fact that Megan has never had to worry about money the way Samantha does, and as a result, can’t empathize with the issues that Samantha struggles with.
Megan hesitantly leaves Samantha but remains ready to return at the first sign of trouble. She will not get the chance, however, as she is killed not longer after leaving, the first clear sign that there’s more in store for Samantha than a few lies.
The Film’s First Moment of Violence is Still a Shocking Mislead
On the note of Megan’s death scene, it introduces an intriguing element, one that runs counter to much of what’s been discussed above. On her way home, a tense Megan pulls into a nearby graveyard to smoke a cigarette and calm down. She realizes she doesn’t have a lighter and starts heating up her car’s lighter, but before it can warm up, a mysterious, grungy man, played by AJ Bowen, pops up suddenly at her window, offering a lighter.
Megan is understandably confused and frightened by his sudden appearance but is thankful nonetheless to have a light. Bowen’s character attempts a bit of small talk but has difficulty breaking down Megan’s defenses. After the conversation hits a lull, Bowen’s character asks, “are you not the babysitter?” and when Megan says she isn’t, he shoots her in the face at point-blank range.
The scene is shocking, especially in contrast to how patient the film has been thus far, but it also interests me because of the way it points the viewer away from the Ulmans. The Ulmans seem like gentle, older eccentrics, more eerie and off-putting than dangerous. Bowen’s character, by contrast, is grungy, with an unruly beard, messy hair hidden with a beanie, and a flannel shirt that bears a closer resemblance to Samantha’s outfit than either of the Ulmans.
His appearance even reminds of the totally nondescript look of the killer in Final Exam, and in the process, suggests to the viewer that they’re about to witness a slasher film not unlike the original Halloween, with this character closing in on Samantha. It also gives the impression that the wealthy Ulmans may be strange, but the actual danger lies with this individual whose look is more working class, which makes the reveal late in the film that this is the Ulmans’ son all the more successful.
Mr. Ulman is Just One Part of the Creepy Family
Back at the house, Mr. Ulman is preparing for their departure, and Samantha meets Mrs. Ulman. Even by the standards set by Mr. Ulman, Mrs. Ulman, played by Mary Woronov, is eccentric: fur coat, wig sitting uncertainly atop her head, enormous earrings, the mannered speech of someone who only knows their bubble of wealth.
To compound her alien nature, Mrs. Ulman bizarrely seems to be coming onto Samantha, flirting with Samantha and touching her hair as she talks. Another classic trope of the idle wealthy comes up here: the wealthy swinger couple, luring in an innocent youth.
Finally, the Ulmans make their way out, and Samantha is left alone. As she navigates the (mostly) empty home, there is a sense of wish fulfillment for Samantha, having the freedom to dance around winding hallways, sit at a desk in front of a dazzling picture window, and idly play billiards. She orders herself the pizza that Mr. Ulman insisted numerous times she get.
One gets the sense that this play-acting is just as appealing to Samantha as the payday, but it is consistently punctured by the bad omens and clues throughout the house: pictures of another family, footsteps and dragging noises above her, the unshakeable feeling that she’s being watched everywhere she goes. Samantha tries numerous times to call Megan but is always met with Megan’s taunting voicemail, repeating, “hello? Oh! I’m not actually here! But leave a message, and I’ll call you right back.”
Pizza, Beloved Staple of the College Dorm, Turns Rotten
Returning to the pizza, it’s intriguing how much such a common food comes to represent in the film. Early in the film, we see Samantha and Megan chatting over pizza, something that seems to be a daily ritual for the pair. Later, Mr. Ulman insists Samantha call the pizza place, mentioning it three times and saying, “I know you college kids love pizza.” Of course, college kids love pizza! Even now, pizza is a miraculous food: for the low price of about 15 bucks, you can have breakfast, lunch, and dinner! For 30 bucks, you could feed a small party! Pizza is truly the best friend of the cash-strapped and hungry.
As a result, it’s telling of the way Mr. Ulman preys on his victim by buying her pizza, pizza that happens to be drugged. Mr. Ulman is confident that Samantha will order the pizza, so confident that he makes it an integral part of his plan, without which his plans for the night would totally fall apart. It almost reminds one of the conspiracy that fluoride in water is intended to placate the population and make them more obedient: Mr. Ulman knows Samantha will need to eat and uses it to achieve his own nefarious goals.
Samantha passes out after eating the pizza, awakening as the Ulmans, with son and monstrous, potato-faced mother-in-law now joining them, begin performing a satanic ritual on her. In this moment, all the omens and clues converge: the Ulmans, career Satanists, have murdered a family, taken their home, and then lured in Samantha, desperate to make money, and used the illusion of their wealth to lower her defenses until they were able to drug her and use her in their ritual. The ritual impregnates Samantha with a satanic baby, but she’s able to escape and, when learning of what’s been done to her, she shoots herself in the head.
It’s all for naught, though, as the film ends with Samantha unconscious in a hospital, with a nurse saying, “don’t worry, you’ll be okay. Both of you,” as the nurse touches Samantha’s stomach. In the end, as so often happens, the evil and wealthy have decided what a young woman is to do with her body and her life, and she can’t escape no matter what.
The Throwback With Something Deeper
It’d be easy for The House of the Devil to be like numerous throwback horror films we’ve had in the 12 years since it came out. Those elements are much of what I love about the film, and it’s still impressive how well the film approximates the aesthetic and tone of the 1970s and 1980s classic horror films. But, beyond its clever filmmaking and attractive aesthetic, it’s also an empathetic film that takes time to understand the struggles of its lead character and, in the process, it’s able to insightfully analyze the way struggling young people are taken advantage of. Here, though, it’s by devil-worshippers instead of the system.