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Movie Review

The House of the Devil

‘House of the Devil’ summons ghosts of the ’70s

Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) accepts a job at a decaying mansion in the middle of nowhere in “The House of the Devil.’’ Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) accepts a job at a decaying mansion in the middle of nowhere in “The House of the Devil.’’ (Magnet Releasing)
By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / December 4, 2009

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It only takes a minute or two to figure out what Ti West is up to in “The House of the Devil.’’ The grainy film stock, the barren autumn trees, the fragile young heroine seeking a baby-sitting job on the night of a lunar eclipse. If these haven’t tipped you off, the opening titles will: freeze-frame on the girl and cheesy yellow lettering that blares the cast and crew. Ah, the 1970s - what a time for gutbucket horror.

West, a rising young director of minor cult pleasures (2005’s “The Roost,’’ 2007’s “Trigger Man’’), comes clean here about his love for all things Bava (Mario) and Carpenter (John). “The House of the Devil’’ is an almost fetishistic re-creation of a horror-suspense movie from around 1978 - the era of “The Boogey Man,’’ “When a Stranger Calls,’’ “The Devil’s Rain,’’ and dozens of other staples of grindhouse theaters and late-night cable.

Like them, “House’’ tries to do a lot with little - occasionally too little. The production is so self-consciously threadbare that only about four other people seem to go to college with Samantha (Jocelin Donahue), the stressed-out student with a striking resemblance to Margot Kidder in “Sisters’’ (1973). When she accepts a job at a decaying mansion in the middle of nowhere, the movie settles in for a long haul of creepy noises and baroque camera angles. “Saw’’ fans will be cannibalizing themselves with boredom. Where’s the bloody beef?

Hold on, it’s coming. Until then, those of us who’ve been here before will take great pleasure in West’s uncanny reanimation of a disreputable genre. “House of the Devil’’ shares with “Paranormal Activity’’ an interest in creating suspense with the least amount of gestures, but unlike that pseudo-camcorder hit it has a deep reverence for the past that extends all the way to the feathered Farrah hairdo on Greta Gerwig as Megan, Samantha’s brash best friend. (And we all know what happens to the brash best friend.)

Cognoscenti will also relish the casting of Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov as the heroine’s employers, an eerily calm couple with Satanic secrets in the attic. Noonan earned his genre bona fides in Michael Mann’s “Manhunter’’ (1986), and Woronov, bless her, has been everywhere from Andy Warhol’s factory to “Rock ’n’ Roll High School’’ (1979) to “Eating Raoul’’ (1982). She is the very definition of an underground survivor, and “House of the Devil’’ treats her with the tattered royal respect that is her due.

On one level, the movie’s just a stunt, one not too far removed from Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake of “Psycho’’ a decade back. (Why? Because he could.) Yet “The House of the Devil’’ is the opposite of an embalming. West brings the dedicated enthusiasm of a very young Frankenstein to this project, lining up the spare body parts, jolting them with electricity, wondering if and how they will shudder with movement. To quote the good doctor (and also Larry Cohen): It’s alive!

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to www.boston.com/movienation.

THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL Written and directed by: Ti West

Starring: Jocelin Donahue, Tom Noonan, Mary Woronov, Greta Gerwig

At: Coolidge Corner

Running time: 95 minutes

Rated: R (some bloody violence)

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