The House of the Devil, Dir. Ti West, Midnight screening at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival
Remember when horror was scary? Iconic images of Universal Studio boogeymen: Drac, Frank and the Wolfman. It wasn’t blood and gore that made them so frightening. It was atmosphere and abjection. Our subconscious fears were manifested by creepy cobwebbed mansions, inhabited by the demonized other—monstrous antitheses of ourselves. The ’70s and 80s upped the ante with the slasher film. The original Texas Chainsaw Massacre set a new precedent with its visceral extension of themes established in Hitchcock’s Psycho. Inspiration was no longer gothic introspection into man’s dark, perverse desires, (think Mary Shelly and Lord Byron tripped out on absinthe), but instead real life serial killers killing real people serially in real life. The change of milieu reflected fissures in modern society. Now the victims of horror films were unsympathetic, often loathsome, characters ruled by avarice or sexual desire or bad manners—like going into other folk’s homes uninvited; fodder for all-too-human monsters born of familial dysfunction. Gender became politicized as sex and sexuality became punishable by gruesome death. Women were almost always the savior, or at least the last survivor. With the horrors more real, the fear derived from the shadow-laden dark house became much more organic and menacing.
Imagine then, the promise a midnight screening of The House of the Devil offered genre fans. The title alone is telling: the film is a throwback to grindhouse horror, but with a refreshingly meditative quality. The basic trappings of the slasher film remain intact: a co-ed spending the night alone in a desolate house during a full lunar eclipse… senses a threat of invasion. Although the body count proves comparatively low, the dread remains palpable. The story takes place in the ’80s, and, as a title card informs us (a la Fargo), is based on “true, unexplained events.” Instead of being up against the usual homicidal maniacs, our heroine’s adversaries turn out to be in league with Satan. Sure, psychopaths with cannibalistic tendencies can be scary, but pure evil as ritualized religion is especially upsetting for a society vested in God and Jesus. After all, subversion of the establishment is key to horror’s appeal—because you can always blame the subversive impulse on somebody other than yourself.
The based on reality’ device is more likely to elicit anxious laughter than conviction, but this is actually to the film’s credit. For all its naturalistic innovation, The House of the Devil is built on time-honored tropes. There is something strangely invigorating about a film that tries to scare our pants off the old fashioned way, instead of relying on the very nature of the media itself to do so (think Blair Witch).
Director Ti West exhibits a fascinating affinity with what we might call the neo-exploitation film. The look and tone is a spot-on homage to the genre thirty years ago. Title credits hit the screen in a vintage font accompanied by freeze frames of the protagonist; one cannot help but revel in nostalgia. But don’t even dare whisper Tarantino. West tells his story sincerely, deftly avoiding the campy pitfalls of overly self-conscious pastiche. The premise proves West’s confident familiarity with the idiom, which offers him a great conceit: slowing down the pace to accentuate the tension. Samantha, Sam for short—exhibiting the androgyny key to modern horror heroines—is a young college student in dire need of $300 rent money to secure her new place. We soon discover why Sam is so anxious to change her living situation: She’s desperate to escape the squalor of dorm life with an irresponsible, oversexed roommate. This in itself signifies certain innocence and a focused mind, classic traits of post-gothic horror protagonists: think of Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween. Sam never has sex, binding her to the fate of what Carol J. Clover christened “The Final Girl.” Strong, chaste women are no easy prey in horror, allowing them to vie with the killer for the audience’s subjective point of view. Sam, played with effortless doe-eyed ingénue charm by newcomer Jocelin Donahue, is a pitch-perfect match for the paradigm. However, West writes Sam with a fault that sets her apart: because she gives in to compulsion against her better judgment, she is prone to corruption. It’s a horror movie no doubt, but this is a trope straight out of classic noir.
Sam answers a babysitting ad and, lured by the promise of quick cash, agrees to a job at a remote house owned by a peculiar old couple. Adding to the film’s retro-chic atmosphere is the casting of Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov as the collective big-bad-wolf-in-disguise, Mr. and Mrs. Ulman. Yes, that was Noonan as the ultra-creepazoid killer in Manhunter. Noonan’s starring role in his self-directed indie, What Happened Was (1994), about a deeply disturbing first date between two co-workers, sealed his place next to Anthony Perkins as one of the most genuinely ooky on-screen personas. Awkwardly tall, and disarmingly soft-spoken, Noonan is perennially sinister. Woronov, a veteran of cult movies from Corman and Warhol, often exuded the super-scary sadistic bent of a repressed mother superior at a school for wayward girls. As Mrs. Ulman she’s looser, adding a genuinely discomforting sexual predator vibe. Another nod to the genre casting-wise is a cameo by Dee Walace (The Hills Have Eyes, The Howling, Cujo). The pre-credit sequence with Wallace as Sam’s potential new landlady signals a passing of the torch from one Jean D’Arc of horror to the next.
Twenty-eight-year-old former SVA film student West cut his teeth on indie-genre pics, including another Larry Fessenden produced B-horror homage The Roost. The House of the Devil, his fourth feature, displays the chops of a promising filmmaker. The film’s low budget works to its advantage, only intensifying the eerie atmosphere and the feeling of dread that accompanies its bleak environment. The most populated place in the whole film is the pizza parlor where Sam meets her only compatriot, a garrulous Farah Fawcett-haired schoolmate sympathetic to Sam’s economic plight. Aside from that, there’s nary a soul in sight. Even the campus is quickly deserted after just a few students walk off while Sam waits for her would-be employer. This might evoke Dario Argento’s horror tour-de-force Suspiria (1977), though West’s film is not built around surreal, avant-garde set-pieces. On an emotional level House of the Devil mines the paranoid vein of Polanski.
Framing and cutting isolate Sam throughout the picture, while our anxiety increases. One striking shot slowly zooms out on a silhouette of Sam, seen from outside the house through the windows. Her dark figure, contrasted by the stark lighting of the room, is trapped by the cross-frames of the window. This eerily quiet image proves more resonant than the gratuitous violence de rigueur in modern horror. In fact, there are only two moments of physical brutality in the whole film. The first instance appears so suddenly after a long measured build up that its aftermath is totally unsettling. The final act erupts in a cathartic action sequence that is appropriately bloody and devilish, providing a slightly supernatural plot twist and a shock ending. West is decidedly at home with the visual language of cinema. Early on in the film Sam returns to her empty dorm room. The camera focuses on a solitary lamp illuminating the space. Cut to the other side of the room as Sam lies down, away from the light, shrouded in shadows. Her avoidance of illumination perfectly foreshadows her commitment to making the wrong move that takes her on a descent into darkness.
David Wilentz dreams in color.