This opens with a caption about the ‘Satanic panic’ craze of the early 1980s – which, I’m told, began because social workers used the phrase ‘ritual child abuse’ in cases of repeated assaults and the media misinterpreted that to mean child abuse involving hooded robes, chanting and black candles. Here, all the rumours turn out to be true … though the plot and tone have less to do with urban legend covens than a recreation of the precise feel of horror movies made for television in the ‘70s and early ‘80s. With all the attention currently being paid to remaking or homaging horror highlights from that era, it’s surprising and refreshing that writer-director Ti West (The Roost) should get away from the obvious Texas Chain Saw/Halloween/Friday the 13th influence and deliver a movie in the spirit of Paul Wendkos (The Mephisto Waltz, Good Against Evil), the Night Gallery episodes of Jeannot Szwarc and Aaron Spelling TV movies (Satan’s School for Girls, Don’t Go to Sleep).
Student heroine Samantha (Jocelin Donahue, with a Jaclyn Smith hairdo) can’t afford to rent an ideal apartment (from Dee Wallace) but is stuck with a roommate who makes her sit outside as she has sex with random guys and leaves their shared space an unlivable ruin. In a first act which almost exactly parallels Babysitter Wanted (which went its own demonic way thereafter), Samantha tears off a number from a job ad posted on campus and – after some mysterious hot-and-cold wavering on the part of a potential employer – takes a high-paying gig in (naturally) an old dark house way out in the woods. Mr Ullman (tall Tom Noonan) and his wife (Mary Woronov) are obvious Addams Family types, but just plausible enough to keep Samantha from leaving, even though they admit her job isn’t to care for a child while they’re out on the evening of a lunar eclipse but to look after an old lady who never comes out of her room (a gambit used in Burnt Offerings). After the creepy set-up, the film shows it means business in 2009 as Samantha’s chatty, likeable, worldly best friend Megan (Greta Gerwig), who we pegged as likely to survive until near the end (cf: Margot Kidder in Black Christmas), is chatted up by a bearded guy (AJ Bowen, of The Signal) in a graveyard: when she admits she’s not the babysitter, he pulls out a gun and shoots her, bloodily exploding her head and demonstrating that this isn’t just going to be about quiet, tame chills.
Alone in the house, Samantha spends the evening getting more and more nervous. In a nice period sequence, she jives around the house while listening to rock on her bulky Sony Walkman – and naturally knocks over a valuable vase. Then, tiny inconsistencies in her employers’ story prey on her mind, she finds evidence (and we see gruesome proof) that another family live in this house and have been got out of the way, the television shows ominous news about the eclipse and clips from Night of the Living Dead, calls to the pizza delivery company and the emergency services (not to mention the dead Megan) don’t help much, mysterious sounds have her creeping upstairs and into the cellar, wondering whether there really is an old lady (or worse) in residence and realising that the Ullmans have a sinister ritual purpose for her. There are only a few possible outcomes, and I admit I guessed the wrong one – I thought it was going for a possession narrative, but actually it’s an Antichrist impregnation bit. The heroine fights back, wins small victories over the villains, and takes extreme action to thwart them – but a typical ‘70s finish (cf: Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb) finds her in a hospital bed and the evil about to spread.
West relishes period details like the bright-yellow-on-a-freeze-frame credits, the heroine’s tight jeans and check shirt and the general air of formless paranoia; even the slightly ho-hum hasn’t-it-been-used-before? title is in the manner of the times. A few really gruesome moments make this more than just a pastiche, but West is really good at the lost art of building suspense through an accumulation of tiny detail without just resorting to splatter or mindless cruelty. Donahue, who had a memorable bit as one of the victims in The Burrowers, handles a difficult role – she’s onscreen a lot, but often with no dialogue – in a manner that speaks well for her potential. The remake craze has started to dip into ‘70s TV movies (redos for Satan’s School for Girls and The Initiation of Sarah, a theatrical remake of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark) so it’s possible that this style will get a welcome revival.