Homage is a hor­ror filmmaker’s best friend.  Any gen­re effort is going to be judged by its pre­de­ces­sors no mat­ter what, espe­cial­ly one with a devot­ed fan fol­low­ing like the hor­ror gen­re, so why not use it to one’s advan­tage?  Smart hor­ror film­mak­ers can use the tool of homage to manip­u­late the expec­ta­tions of their audi­ence, ful­fill­ing some and skirt­ing oth­ers to keep the view­ers on their toes as the film leads them into new areas with­in famil­iar ter­ri­to­ry.  That said, the use of homage must done with care­ful thought and insight.  If not, a film­mak­er runs the risk of remind­ing the audi­ence why a film’s pre­de­ces­sors were so good and mak­ing their own work look like a poor rela­tion.

And that brings us to The House Of The Devil.  From the retro open­ing titles and the Cars-esque new wave our hero­ine is lis­ten­ing to, writer/director Ti West is plac­ing us in the 1980’s.  Our lead/identification fig­ure is Samantha (Jocelin Donahue), a col­lege stu­dent who is try­ing to escape the dorms and get an apart­ment.  Unfortunately, she only has a few days to get the nec­es­sary cash.

Potential sal­va­tion arrives in the form of the Ulmans (Tom Noonan & Mary Woronov), a cou­ple who offer a babysit­ting gig.  Best pal Megan (Greta Gerwig) advis­es Sam to stay away because the Ulmans are weird and decep­tive but Samantha is con­vinced she can tough it out.  Of course, this is a big mis­take.  There’s some­thing des­per­ate­ly wrong with the sit­u­a­tion and sin­is­ter forces will con­spire to make Samantha regret her deci­sion in ways she nev­er dreamt of.

On the sur­face, this should work like a dream.  West helms his tale in a delib­er­ate­ly paced, qui­et­ly atmos­pher­ic style that is refresh­ing in this post–Saw era.  The per­for­mances all work: Donahue under­plays nice­ly, Gerwig steals her few sce­nes as the charm­ing­ly obnox­ious friend and Noonan and Woronov beef up the creep fac­tor of their char­ac­ters with a mix­ture of their nat­u­ral­ly sin­is­ter charis­ma and fun, Method-style act­ing man­ner­isms.  Eliot Rockett’s cin­e­matog­ra­phy nails that grainy, shad­owy style beloved to slash­er movie fans and the musi­cal score avoids typ­i­cal clich­es for a set of unnerv­ing son­ic tex­tures.

However, The House Of The Devil fails to sat­is­fy.   The main cul­prit is West’s script: sim­ply put, it’s a mess.  The char­ac­ter of Samantha is a writ­ten as a com­plete dimwit and her tri­als nev­er open up her char­ac­ter in a way that inspires sym­pa­thy or audi­ence iden­ti­fi­ca­tion.  The Ulmers are writ­ten so broad­ly that we nev­er get to ques­tion whether or not their intent is sin­is­ter.  The sec­ond act just leaves Samantha in the house and doesn’t intro­duce any inter­est­ing twists or new plot ele­ments, result­ing in a depress­ing­ly slack mid­sec­tion.  The third act rev­els in blood and shocks but its gonzo approach is too abrupt a tonal shift from what pre­ced­ed it.  Even worse, it requires the vil­lains to sud­den­ly act in incred­i­bly dumb and incom­pe­tent ways.  The coda offers a rather inco­her­ent final twist that ends things with a groan.

It’s as if West brain­stormed a vari­ety of retro hor­ror ele­ments that he want­ed to explore and rushed into pro­duc­tion before the sto­ry was worked out.  It is obvi­ous that he’s hav­ing a blast behind the cam­era, bounc­ing from motif to motif like a pin­ball, but he for­got that it all needs to add up at the end.  There’s no arche­typ­al themes or psy­chol­o­gy dri­ving his sto­ry for­ward and no emo­tion to draw us into its world.  The blood-and-thun­der finale it reach­es feels like a dis­trac­tion, an attempt to jolt the view­er out of notic­ing its inabil­i­ty to make the sto­ry pay off (even the film’s defend­ers admit said finale is the least suc­cess­ful part of the film).  As it result it feels gra­tu­itous — not because of the con­tent, but because West and his sto­ry have not earned such an end­ing.

The best hor­ror movies are made by peo­ple who want to give you a piece of their mind, a piece of their tor­ment­ed soul or a lit­tle of both.  It feels like West doesn’t want to offer the view­er any­thing but a bunch of ref­er­ences and mood.  The House Of The Devil under­takes its homage process from the out­side in, get­ting the exter­nal par­tic­u­lars right with­out ever inhab­it­ing them.  It’s just not enough to know the look and style, a hor­ror film also needs a brain and a pulse.  Unfortunately, all there is here is freeze-dried homage that leaves lin­ger­ing thoughts of old­er, bet­ter and more intellectually/emotionally rich hor­ror movies.