Notable Festivals: Tribeca
Every week, it seems like a handful of new horror films hit store shelves, coming seemingly from nowhere and looking like complete and utter garbage. The market is literally flooded with these derivative shlock films, but why? A staggering majority of independent filmmakers have clued into the fact that horror films are proportionally higher sellers than other genres. It’s a genre where quality doesn’t matter, which explains why a horror film that looks like it was made by the high school AV club would be bought and distributed by boutique labels while a high-quality dramatic film would be left behind like a redheaded kid at an orphanage. A lot of these films are styled after current genre trends like “torture porn”, or “found-footage”, and as such, they are quick to fall out of style and thus languish in eternal obscurity. In other words, these films are meant to be disposable entertainment, nothing more.
But director Ti West doesn’t his work to be seen as “disposable”. He wants his films to stand the test of time and scare generation after generation of cinephiles, and his intentions of timelessness are evident in his work. After getting burned by studio meddling with his third feature CABIN FEVER 2: SPRING FEVER, West was back in the independent realm and found he needed to do something really special to distinguish himself from all the product that was over saturating the indie horror market. But rather than embrace current trends, West decided to stay true to his character and tapped into his nostalgia for the old-school horror films of the early 1980’s—a nostalgia he was surprised to find was shared by a great many horror aficionados. His resulting vision, 2009’s THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, was a hell of a comeback after the disappointment of CABIN FEVER 2. It’s easily West’s best film, and arguably his masterpiece.
The time is circa 1983. The place is rural Connecticut. Samantha (Joceline Donahue) is a college co-ed who is looking for her first apartment so she can escape an oppressive dorm environment. She scores her dream pad, but her joy turns to anxiousness when she remembers she doesn’t have the money to afford it. She sets about looking for a job, eventually finding one as a babysitter. She travels out to a big house in the woods with her friend Megan (Greta Gerwig), and despite both of their misgivings about the situation, the owner’s offer of $400 for one night of work is too much for Sam to pass up. So she musters up the courage to hang out in this huge house all alone, but as she explores the dark corridors to stave off her boredom, she uncovers clues that suggest she just might be dealing with a murderous cult of Satanists intent on offering her up as the mother of the devil’s child.
West is lucky in that his inspired casting choices were fully onboard with an admittedly risky conceit. As the sweet and virginal Samantha, Donahue is a great find—her subdued, involving performance suggests that she’ll one day be a huge star in her own right. When someone can pull off the high-waisted mom jeans look and actually make it look good, you know you’ve found something special. She has to carry the weight of the film, and she does so effortlessly.
After Tom Noonan’s campy appearance in West’s debut film, THE ROOST (2005), he once again collaborates with the young director and plays the role of Mr. Ulman, the quietly strange owner of the house. Noonan’s physicality is perfect for the role, what with his imposing slenderness and sunken facial features. He’s almost like a walking corpse in a tuxedo. Mumblecore queen Greta Gerwig rose to attention through her collaborations with the movement’s forefather, Joe Swanberg—himself a friend and colleague of West’s. The role of Sam’s sassy friend Megan is a small one, but Gerwig’s spunky personality is highly memorable. Dee Wallace rounds out the cast as the kindly, maternal Landlady of Sam’s new apartment, but it’s more of a cameo role honoring madam’s rich legacy within the horror genre.
Eliot Rockett returns as the cinematographer, proving that West’s experience on CABIN FEVER 2 wasn’t all for naught. The film was shot on Super 16mm film, as West desired to make the film appear as if it was actually shot circa 1983. This meant appropriating camera techniques like slow zooms instead of what would usually be accomplished with a dolly move today. The image is grainy and lo-fi, using moody intimate light to cast key portions of West’s classically-composed frames into the dark shadows of the house. Colors are mostly subdued, save for pops of crimson blood when things really start going down.
A lot of credit goes to Jade Healy, the production designer, who absolutely nails the period elements. I’ve never seen such a flawless recreation of the 1980’s, right down to the feathered hair and mom jeans. THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL absolutely succeeds in convincing audiences that it is a lost film from the VHS format’s heyday.
The score by returning composer Jeff Grace is slow and haunting to match West’s razor-taut, patient pacing. The musical palette is appropriately creepy and moody, using different instruments to create an old-fashioned aesthetic that further enhances our sense of the time period the story takes place in. There’s a great sequence where West drops The Fixx’s energetic “One Thing Leads To Another” onto the soundtrack and simply lets Donahue spazz out around the house in one last moment of unbridled youth and innocence before the horror truly sets in. Graham Reznick supports Grace’s score with another excellent sound mix. West’s films have placed such a priority on immersive sound design that by this point in West’s career, Reznick has emerged as the young director’s most valuable collaborator.
Obviously, West’s affinity for the 80’s aesthetic conceits run rampant throughout THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL. It serves a very real story sense, in that there was a very real “Satanic panic” in the early 80’s that fueled mainstream paranoia over murderous cults, which informs West’s approach to the film. However, the 80’s conceit goes one step further in amplifying the suspense because it places the story at a point in time where breakdowns in communication were still possible. With no cell phones or internet, Samantha is truly isolated in the house, which generates that kind of terror that comes with being helpless and alone. It’s a specific type of terror that you simply can’t get with a story set in our current, always-connected day and age. West furthers the structural aesthetic of 80’s horror filmmaking by mimicking old-fashioned freeze-frame opening titles, right down to the vintage yellow type.
The film bears another of West’s signatures in that it takes place in a singular location. In THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, the locale is a spooky Victorian mansion in the woods—charming and idyllic by day, but instantly foreboding once the sun sets. West also attempts to create something of a contained universe across his work, like the reference to Frightmare Theatre, the late-night horror TV show that Tom Noonan hosted in THE ROOST. In THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, Samantha is watching late night programming on the television via—you guessed it—Frightmare Theatre. The show’s presentation that night (George A. Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968)) is another instance of West overtly acknowledging his influences and idols. It also helps that he didn’t need to pay licensing fees to use Romero’s footage in the film (thanks, public domain!).
The supreme care that West put into THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL was immediately apparent to audiences when he premiered it at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2009. Praise was so abundant that his association with CABIN FEVER 2 was almost erased entirely before it had even begun (CABIN FEVER 2 actually came out several months after THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, despite being shot two years prior). His commitment to the 80’s aesthetic extended to the film’s home video release, which featured a very clever promotional release in the VHS format, indulging in our shared nostalgia for the glory days of videocassette horror. If ever a modern film were more perfectly suited to release on an anachronistic format, THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL is it.
Ultimately, THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL is not just a rousing success, but a crucial turning point in West’s career. It’s where he went from rising star to the de-facto horror director in the independent realm. By taking his cues from Kubrick or Polanksi, and not from what was currently selling, West has made an effortlessly smart slice of horror that’s several cuts—nay, slashes– above the rest.
THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Dark Sky Films.
Produced by: Josh Braun, Larry Fessenden
Written by: Ti West
Director of Photography: Eliot Rockett
Production Designer: Jade Healy
Edited by: Ti West
Music: Jeff Grace