Trading on fond memories is difficult to get right. Particularly when those memories are of 80s imperilled college co-ed fright flicks typically knocked off cheap for a quick profit.
But, Ti West casts his net a little wider, setting his chiller in the 1980s but invoking satanic cults of Hammer Horror and the wintry desolation of Bob Clark’s underrated 70s horror Black Christmas, and employing a piano-and-strings score to complete the mood.
Eighties horror demi-icon Dee Wallace (The Howling, Cujo) pops up in a pre-credits cameo as a misleadingly nervy landlady, offering willowy college girl Sam (Donahue, doing Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween with a touch of Sissy Spacek’s Carrie) a house for bargain rent.
But, Sam’s money problems threaten to scupper the deal, sending her off to an isolated rural mansion to babysit for one night. Accompanied by her spunky, blonde pal (mumblecore queen Gerwig), the pair soon realise something’s askew.
Mr Ulman (Manhunter’s Tom Noonan) doesn’t actually have a kid, rather an elderly mother who needs watching, while he and flinty wife (Woronov, another 80s B-movie scream queen) go to see the full lunar eclipse.
Persuaded to stay by Mr Ulman’s offer of $400 for one-night’s work, Sam sends her friend home and settles in for the night.
A master of the slow-burn, West carefully creates an atmosphere of clammy dread through Noonan and Woronov’s off-kilter performances and dialogue, and direction that encases Donahue in shadow or squeezes uncomfortably close-in.
For forty minutes the film remains locked on Sam, before cutting away for a moment of savage violence, and then returning once again to a heroine who has no clue what lies in wait for her.
West also knocks his audience off balance by withholding exposition until unnervingly late in the day, and then unleashing a final act of bloody terror and violence.
It’s to his credit that the climactic bloodbath comes as a release rather than squandering all the good work that has come before.
Forget Rob Zombie’s joyless Halloween retreads, this is the real offspring of John Carpenter’s babysitting classic.