Samantha (Jocelin Donahue), a sophomore in college, has a weekend to come up with $300 of rent money. In desperation, she takes a babysitting job at a huge, creepy house in the middle of nowhere, on the night of a full lunar eclipse. Upon arriving at the house, she finds out there is no baby; instead she is minding the elderly mother of Mr. and Mrs. Ulman (Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov). Initially reluctant, Samantha agrees to stay when Mr. Ulman ups the original payment from $100 to $400. Although her friend Megan (Greta Gerwig) insists the job is too good to be true, Samantha reconciles herself to four hours of staring at the television and jumping at creaks and shadows.
Samantha marches ineluctably toward her fate as if she were the first heroine to encounter nefarious evil on a babysitting job.
Once Mr. and Mrs. Ulman have departed for the evening, Samantha does what any babysitter would: she explores. Room after darkened room opens before us as Samantha fumbles for light-switches and skirts around furniture. She pulls out a Walkman and headphones and dances up and down the stairs, she walks down long hallways full of shadows, she breaks a vase and sweeps up the pieces, and all the while something dreadful waits, behind closed doors, for the moon to go dark.
THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL has a subtlety of execution, if not of ideas, relying on perennially sinister tropes of shadows, corridors, creaks and things that go bump in the night to build the mood. Samantha marches ineluctably toward her fate as if she were the first heroine to encounter nefarious evil on a babysitting job. Donahue is well-supported by the effectively cast, thoroughly creepy Noonan and Woronov (Mrs Ulman comes off as a friendlier, slightly more charismatic Cruella DeVille). If the thing in the shadows isn’t quite as fearsome when it emerges, the final scene makes up for it.
THE INNKEEPERS opens with less foreboding than THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, but West employs similar tricks of pacing to keep your eyes on the screen. Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) are clerks at The Yankee Pedlar, a once-grand, now-grubby hotel whose claim to paranormal fame is the spectre of Madeline O’Malley, suicide bride. They have an ongoing ghost hunt, to provide Luke’s website with footage that will snag the attention of publishers or Hollywood producers. An irate mother and her slack-jawed five-year-old son, together with an aging TV actress turned psychic healer (Kelly McGillis) are the last guests of the inn but one: a quiet old man who pays in cash and requests a particular room.
THE INNKEEPERS is horror scaled back to a deceptively believable set-up, when placed beside its flashier contemporaries. Instead of cabins full of teenagers, sex scenes and lots of gore, we have an awkward confessional moment when Luke and Claire are drunk, and a scattering of scares throughout, just enough to tantalize, right up until the final act, which delivers blood and ghosts aplenty. West’s gift for allowing the viewer’s imagination to populate the shadows is again in full effect, as boredom for the people onscreen translates into tension for the viewer. The more they relax, the worse you know it’s going to be.
THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL has been called homage, but it’s actually a period piece, and the charm of both films lies in that sincerity of approach.
In both films, West takes stock characters and gives them fresh faces, with voices that engage in believable dialogue. Paxton and Healey have genuine camaraderie as minimum wage slaves who suffer together the indignities of customer service. A bit of comedy here and there comes off comfortably (Claire’s physical shtick with the garbage bag and the dumpster is delightful) without losing the atmosphere of doom, perhaps because West takes the genre seriously enough to tell a good story. THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL has been called homage, but it’s actually a period piece, and the charm of both films lies in that sincerity of approach. Evocative for anyone who remembers the Satanic panic of the eighties, it is realized with a devotion to its predecessors, for which West has obvious affection and respect. Both films an unselfconscious, straightforward quality to them, like Claire telling ghost stories to the kid in the lobby of the Yankee Pedlar, using the flashlight trick in broad daylight, and both satisfy in the same way that stories told in the dark are meant to do.