Posted on Tuesday, October 13th, 2009 by Hunter Stephenson
Repeat the following name after me three times: Ti West. Ti West. Ti West. Pray that Hollywood doesn’t tuck him into its throbbing succubus and then wring his brilliance out into its rancid, gold spittoon gifted by Dubai. With The House of the Devil, one of the most gorgeous, sexy, and vital horror films in recent memory, the 29-year-old writer/director has bowled me over. I haven’t been this excited by an independent film from a new, uncompromising voice in modern cinema since Jody Hill‘s The Foot Fist Way. If you follow my work at /Film, oh shit, you know what that means: I might proceed to drive my unwieldy love-cart off a cliff that is this oncoming jump…so if you choose not to follow, I’ll leave you with an echo. “Take those greedy scumbags at Platinum Dunes hostage, tie them up at the bottom of a Lake and force them to watch THOTD a million times…Happy Halloween.” The pool will be good for Mr. Devin. This is the best horror film of 2009.
The Quasi-Sexist and Sexual History that Brought Forth The House of the Devil, and the Current State of Survival Girl Horror in Pop Culture
Much like this review, The House of the Devil is a love-letter to the awesomeness that is the unsure, hot chick. I’m not the first writer to suggest that the horror film—particularly the Survival Girl niche—can serve as the ultimate, if culturally-maligned, platform for young guys to reveal and bask in the myriad strengths, vulnerabilities, and attractiveness of the female; and really what is Quentin Tarantino‘s Kill Bill if not the genre’s archetype Survival Girl marching into a kung-pow spaghetti Western fantasia? And his Death Proof but a botched head-on fetish collision with the genre’s idea that audiences should adore a female star(s) and then flinch as she faces death (fulfilled in Inglourious Basterds) or worse? Why the need to bring Tarantino up at all in my review? Well, Tarantino brought many of these genre notions to the aughts’ zeitgeist and to academia, and quite loudly so. He also treats his female characters with the care and attention, unlike so many Hollywood genre films, that Ti West exhibits here with The House of the Devil.
Some of my thoughts about horror films, past and present, might sound taboo and sexist if not for decades of cinematic precedent, alongside numerous essays on the subject. The horror film is one of the greatest manifestations and mediums allowed the male psyche, for men to unreservedly express the complicated inner need to vault amazing girls up totems of perfection and then, without IRL complicity, drag them to hell thereafter. The ending to these types of films can be a highly personal thing, inspired by past relationships, neurotic complexes, artistic flourish, and more than a little depravity under the guise of fun. Search, worship, get your heart brokenDestroy.
I’ve always found the best horror (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Wes Craven‘s ANOES) to contain an essential purity by way of primality. Such films deal in sex and death, and therefore are not mainstream, or indie or arty, or a footstool for the Academy. The terror in such films simmers inherently in the bones of women and girls and, however inexplicably, in front of the cameras and eyes of guys. Thus, many of these genre entries are agreeably disregarded for being cheap and low-brow to the point of exploitation—earning cultural value only in retrospect, like so much pornography from decades past.
But today, horror is arguably in a more stagnant state than ever before, with big companies like Platinum Dunes inexplicably exploiting the past’s low budget exploitation with their corporate-jock remakes and capitalistic coldness. The horror genre was and remains a dependable source for easy cash—the Weinsteins are currently betting on it as they always have. But to me as a horror fan and not a market analyst, it seems like the core horror franchises that an entire generation has grown up with should finally be updated and treated with a better eye for titillation. If only Tarantino had directed the Friday the 13th that exists in his head to drive this point home.
Many of today’s horror films decidedly place rote, serious acts of torture above the human sensation of being scared at wit’s end by darkness and the unknown, and by being turned on by the unknown that is the opposite sex. Unlike millions of girls walking the streets, female characters in today’s horror films seem increasingly generic and lame to me. They lack style so as to be unattractive, as if popped from a lab of tanning bed ditzes (i.e. Los Angeles’ girls forever < New York’s). I don’t care whether the female characters in so many of the aughts’ horror films die or live or get naked while doing both. They’re too fake to die and too dumb to live.
The state of American horror and the presentation of females therein is funny because a lot of today’s non-amateur porn has the same freaking problem. There’s a reason why Brett Ratner loves Playboy: like a lot of the dudes at Platinum Dunes, his taste in pussy is as boring and airbrushed as his filmmaking. And there is a reason why American Apparel‘s ads and models have subbed in for the shower scene-slasher and the porno of late, and intertwined with the latter so as to help redefine mainstream sexual preference. Never underestimate the power of the right pair of socks on the right girl’s legs to rack up millions (of dollars from girls and vicarious fantasies from guys). I’m surprised that we still don’t see this effect in horror films today.
Horror and slasher films were created by men, and to this day they still are all over the world. Survival girl horror exists as a niche of one-sided, violent poetry, on this side of reality. But when Survival Girl horror is done right, to its ideal, when the director is as artistically passionate and knowing as Ti West, the smart girls in the audience will swoon in fear as well. They will get the film, think about the appeal and male process, and accept it. Without spoiling anything, the film signifies an arrival for Ti West in more ways than one, and if it doesn’t change the genre’s notions of style and sex appeal, at least West will in due time.
They Don’t Make ‘Em Like This Anymore: The Masterful Period Piece Atmosphere of The House of the Devil and Its Odd Theme of Duality
While viewing, a friend of mine offered the following, “This could have been a really gay Urban Outfitters-type of film. [minutes later] Jesus Christ. I can’t believe this guy pulled the ’80s off.” This is going to be a major point of contention for The House of the Devil: is it simply a style-over-substance homage to the ’80s, that rare decade that actually matched its later mythicization in terms of romantic, youthful cool? Moreover, if one did not actually experience the ’80s, does the film not hold as much meaning and enticement, is it not as good sans memories of dope, broke babysitters who arrived wearing headphones sans iPhones and iPods when a parent(s) left for dinner? Time will tell, but I can’t recall another horror film this decade that utilized the ’80s so as to be a classy period piece. A recurring, early observation from fans and angry detractors of the film alike is that THOTD could easily be mistaken for an unreleased movie from the year it’s set. One need not be a seasoned elitist of style and nostalgia or a font Nazi—though the title screen and poster’s choices are tops—to be in awe of this.
But much like the performance by its lead star, newcomer Jocelin Donahue—picture a young Karen Allen as a well-read model—there is bewitching subtlety at work on the fetching surface and beneath it. One quick-trigger criticism of the film will be that not much happens for three quarters of the movie, okay? But West is telling the story of a girl who is fated to encounter absolute horror on a day marked with college-age stress, loneliness, and transition.
Donahue‘s young college student is named Samantha Hughes and she’s in the midst of leaving the dorms, where she lives with a delightfully horny and aimless stoner roommate, for a bedroom in a cozy two-story home. The film takes place across one day in her life, and this particular evening brings a much anticipated lunar eclipse. In another director’s hands, the event would be overdone and front-and-center, but in the life of West‘s main character and creation, she is too preoccupied with arranging a payday to make rent and with social dissonance to care. Thus, West deliciously sprinkles the eclipse throughout, and when that shit goes down? It rocks.
When her future landlady (Dee Wallace)—a woman who seems schooled in certain realities—tells Samantha that she likes her and that she’s reminded of her daughter, the scene’s purpose is to emphasize Samantha‘s general goodness as she enters adulthood. The landlady goes with her gut, and we are expected to do the same, which creates a fun juxtaposition. Part of the film’s charm in such scenes is that Samantha is obviously not aware of the film’s title—epic as to be smirk worthy—which looms over her day not unlike the titular, terrific Amityville-like house itself that we encounter later. In light of this, we know full and well that this two-story home is not meant to be her final destination.
A sense of general worry and frustration blankets Samantha, conjuring an unfortunate tarot card flickering deep down inside; from the start Donahue gives her the aura of adorable semi-defeat and later full-on doom. This is key to the film’s success. What’s more, Samantha‘s surroundings of wet fall streets and a soporific town and campus do nothing to alleviate a black magik destiny. A second viewing allows one to pick up on other little details: church bells ring out to an overcast sky, not to warn Samantha but almost to mourn the inevitable loss of another chosen one to a darker force, to the devil itself. Eyes look back at her from a printed illustration on a pay phone.
A playful, recurring duality runs throughout the film that I really dig. Yet, it’s so ambiguous as to be weird as hell: Samantha is mentioned numerous times in the same breath as other females that we curiously never see: the landlady’s grown (possibly dead?) daughter, a troubled college girl who is moving out of Samantha‘s “future home,” another girl who is up for the same babysitting gig as Samantha that’s mentioned below. These faceless girls begin to take on the role of subliminal ghosts. In fact, we arguably never even glimpse who Samantha is said to be babysitting later. A lot is hidden from her, and a la Rosemary’s Baby, the adults, if not all guilty here, know far more than she. Even the indulgent and lethargic behavior of her roommate seem to support that Samantha is of a different time, alienated by the outgoing, still existent loose morals of the ’70s (her roommate) and carefree entitlement of the early ’80s (her best friend).
When Samantha finds herself locked out of the dorms—her roommate (Heather Robb) is having wake-up sex—she walks past a kiosk of fluttering flyers done in magic marker for the eclipse. The flyers are easy for the audience to overlook—like tiny freckles across Samantha’s pale face—and this is where she finds a babysitter flyer, the ‘s’ drawn as a dollar sign (to guessers amongst the audience, like a devil’s hat tip). This moment is accidental but fated. As in his previous indie features, The Roost and Trigger Man, West has a crazy flare for the journey more so than the destination; he’d rather craft a scene where a girl in tight jeans walks up to the library rather than see what happens inside it, even when said girl has a ticket to hell in her back pocket. This artistic preference is not lost on him: he knowingly offers a fucking shocker of a scene in the hang time to drive home the stakes.
There is also the duality between Samantha and her aforementioned well-off, blond best friend, Megan (Greta Gerwig), and the difference in their style, demeanor, and even their cheekbones should feel stereotypically forced—blond versus brunette, snooze—but instead their opposing mannerisms coalesce with equal parts sexiness and intrigue on screen. Of the many duality observations, my favorite revolves around—yes, seriously—scenes with bad pizza at the beginning and near the end. The connection between the pizza in these scenes is baffling as to be impossible; but West gets a kick from crafting cinematic art and entertainment from this terribly murky, cheesy plot contrivance, as it recalls many of the random loose ends used (or “un-used”) in horror films from the ’80s. In this case, he nearly leaves a thread to hook them together. Um, is it just a bad day for pizza in this town, or does it play into an ecliptic conspiracy (note the lingering shot of the chef statue, wtf?)? Or is the devil in it? All of the above? Pizzas for pentagrams, if you so choose.
One of most memorable uses of atmosphere in the film is when Megan and Samantha share a chat inside a favorite pizza parlor. The use of color in this scene is masterful, casually radiating orange to make one feel the soft warmth and texture of hot crust, wood paneling, and friendly booth conversation. You practically feel their escape from the dampness and the night’s approaching eclipse out of doors. “Feathered hair” will be mentioned per Greta‘s performance, but her hairstyle is not used as an ironic wink or retro accent: paired with the way Megan pulls apart her pizza and holds her old-school paper Coke cup to her lips, Greta is giving a free lesson in classically messy, goof-ball sensuality. What bothers me is that I feel like these scenes will be passed off as empty only because they happen within an ’09 horror film; these scenes contain such minutiae for feeling a la early Richard Linklater or Paul Thomas Anderson that they effortlessly build character. Like the evening’s eclipse in THOTD, scenes like this slide into place just the way West intended.
A good deal of the unsettling atmosphere is aided by the encroaching of silence with music. Choice cuts used in the film include Thomas Dolby‘s wistful, rainy jam “One of Our Submarines” and Greg Kihn‘s pepped-up, eerie “The Break-Up Song (They Don’t Write ‘Em).” I found the latter track to be a respectful, beyond worthy nod to the use of Blue Öyster Cult in the light-a-joint-and-drive scene from Halloween. The Dolby track is used during another of my favorite, original scenes in the film, when Megan and Samantha are driving out to the House. As the song plays softly on the radio, the girls drive down a deserted road alongside pitch blackness and dead trees. Their conversation is shot with reserved excitement from the backseat, as if the camera is a kid (rather than a stalker) who snuck into Megan’s car and hid under a blanket. The scene nails the priviness and giddiness of hearing two cool, stunning chicks intimately talk and share half-jokes in private.
Much of the music is by composer Jeff Grace, who has worked on LOTR: Return of the King, Gangs of New York, and all of West’s previous low-budget features for Glass Eye Pix. When Samantha reaches the House, Grace’s traditional, instrumental score creeps in and begins to feel omnipresent even when it vanishes. At first, Grace’s keys mirror so many doomed yet careful footsteps up to the House, signaling those before Samantha. Once inside, the strings feel expressed by a darker, larger force not unlike the score from There Will Be Blood; both encapsulate a hypnotic power outside the bodies and minds of the respective main characters: unprecedented ambition mixed with atheism is replaced by doting innocence and Satanism.
The Context and Contrast of the Ending with the Build-Up in The House of the Devil, and the Hyper-Awareness of Its Occult Scenes
There is one sentence that I hate more than any other in recent movie criticism: “I love this movie but it’s not for everyone.” I feel that to even write this sentence in regard to a positive opinion about an American film helps broaden a new fissure that separates American cinema from its once sacred role as art as populist unification. I can certainly understand why some viewers will not be fans of The House of the Devil, but to me, it offers enough reason and artistic value to see it regardless; and it warrants a proper explanation from those mature audience members who truly dislike it, given the care and attention that went into making it.
“Nothing happens in it,” and “The ending was cool but didn’t make up for the build-up,” are lazy statements that totally ignore what the film sets out to accomplish and, moreover, ignore what it accomplishes without fail in brilliant fashion. I honestly believe that, like Magnet‘s Let the Right One In and director Tomas Alfredson last year, no other director could make this film better than Ti West. If one feels nothing from the combination of his exquisite cinematography, impeccable use of score and rock songs, amazingly dope girls/actresses, a clear understanding of horror past and present, and a color palette that ranks with any horror film: why? To me, this is like watching a day as curated by the dark side and being like, “That’s fucking it?”
Ti West has embedded the film with a deceptively dry sense of humor that is highlighted by the superb performances by Tom Noonan (Synecdoche, New York) and Mary Woronov (Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (!)) as the residents of The House of the Devil. As the off-putting, gentle yet unstable tall man, Mr. Ulman, who hires Samantha to be a babysitter for a single night, Noonan’s monotone delivery of his way-enigmatic lines conveys to the listener the benefit of the doubt and the unquestionable urge to flee. An unwieldy madness and anticipation can be sensed in his character, or perhaps it’s just the (timely?) toll of age and arthritic limbs.
As Mr. Ulman’s wife, Woronov is far more predatory, curling up beside Samantha like a re-animated cougar in admiration of her young skin. In minutes, Woronov has created one of the freakiest female characters I’ve seen recently, like Cruella De Vil times growing desperation and disease. Whatever their perversion, if there is any at all, these people are damaged and the stuff of nightmares. West and the actors know how to get your skin crawling, but there’s not exactly a tell-tale moment to scream at Samantha on the screen.
Years ago, these scenes might have played like Jacqueline Bisset‘s famous chicken-foot encounter with voodoo natives in 1977’s The Deep, but the tone here feels like an appropriate update and just as violating. After so many movies, would such an event not feel overly cinematic and absurdly frightening to the point of being silly in real life to many of us?
If the last act is a minor risk, it does successfully have it both ways: alluding to the “cop out” endings of so many horror films that promise the world on the poster/trailer, yet rarely deliver; and tastefully forgoing a more instantly satisfying cheap-scare, buzzing ending (a la Paranormal Activity) for one that makes you consider the many facets of the film’s horror and its creative inspirations. (And to have a lot of fun doing so, of course.) I do find it surprising that some film-fluent viewers don’t see the film’s ending as both a funny play on open-ended genre resolution and as an inspired touch of directorial symbolism. If anything, after all that Samantha has been through in our eyes, in the end, as with Tarantino and his numerous female creations, it’s for Ti West to have his way with her, not Satan or…a studio exec.
/Film Rating: 9.666/10 (needs tits)
The Best Horror Film of 2009 and one of my Top Five Movies of 2009
Hunter Stephenson can be reached at h.attila/gmail and on twitter.