Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The House of the Devil

Horror is a funny old bird.

There are some stores that contain tremendous depth, with rich characters and fascinating mythologies and engaging narratives. The people who created these stories were trying to create something with more layers than simple fear, and I keep going back to the best examples of these works. I keep going back to stuff like The Shining and Romero's Zombie movies and Clive Barker's output. There's a lot to explore and take in.

But under Horror's dark wing exists the campfire tale. You're sitting in the dark, the fire is crackling, and that seductive voice whispers to you, sketching out the tale. The storyline is direct and primal, with very little to get in the way of the horror. Which is not to say that it's shallow. When done right, the campfire story is an engine, precisely crafted to scare the living crap out of you. Every once in awhile you get something really well made, where the craft of constructing tension and suspense raises up to the level of art. Some campfire stories have the grace and poise of ballet.

In other words, I really liked The House of the Devil.

I'm really late to the party. Many other people have lined up to kiss this movie's ass and they did a better job than I can. There's really not much to say about HotD other than it's brilliantly made and I want to see what else this Ti West guy can do.

The Tension

One of the first things that struck me after I finished HotD was how effectively scary it was.

A long stretch of the movie involves Samantha, the desperate-for-cash girl who takes a really sketchy babysitter gig in a creepy house on the outskirts of town, wandering around a creepy old house by herself. In terms of narrative stuff, not a lot happens. She pokes around the place, watches some TV, and wanders down some creepy old corridors. When written, it sounds boring, but the way Ti West filmed it lead to an atmosphere of almost unbelievable tension. I realized something while watching Samantha in the house: this is the kind of horror I can relate to.

I'm typing this update after hours in my office in New York. I'm alone in this large hollow office space, with only the hum of the building's heating engines keeping me company. It's eerie. I've felt these feelings a thousand times in my life but horror rarely explores the discomfort of being in a strange place with the depth and patience of HotD. Like many movies that rely on atmosphere, I don't know how worthwhile repeat viewings would be, but watching her explore the Bad Place was incredibly chilling.

The 80s

HotD is set in the 80s and a lot of people have commented on the little touches outlining the setting, from the 80s-inspired opening credits to the feathered hair and the big-ass Walkmans Sam totes around. Most of the commentators I've read are kids of the 80s and those little touches bring back fond memories of watching crappy VHS movies.

The setting never feels like a gimmick. Part of the reason West set his story in the 80s is that he wanted to circumvent the whole stupid "there's no cell phone signal" thing. I think this is brilliant. Horror depends on isolation and cell phones have made it too easy to call for help. Someone someday will come up with a brilliant permanent fix for this problem, but HotD's trick of setting the movie before the technology became commonplace is a good dodge.


The other major reason West set the movie in the 80s was due to the cultural paranoia around Satanism. I remember those days. We didn't really worry about Satanists growing up in hippy-dippy San Francisco, but I remember talk show TV "exposes" on Satanist cults and all the movies from that era. There really was a cultural paranoia about the hidden Satanic cult next door looking to sacrifice your baby. In retrospect the whole thing seems goofy, but it's fun stuff to tap into.

In retrospect, the movie isn't particularly Satanic. It takes a long time to get to the pentagrams and the rituals and the hypnotized victim. When Sam is confronted by the head cultists in the graveyard, he speaks of Satan very indirectly. I thought this was a nice touch as many movie cultist-types tend toward the gloating villain speech. In HotD he implores Samantha to return with him and he sees her violation as a great gift. He's not a very threatening figure and his neediness makes him a great character.


I've gone on rants about how horror directors who have too much fondness for the genre tend to make campy, over-the-top horror with varying degrees of success. They're often fun to watch, but they usually end up feeling a little too self-aware and reverential. I'm really happy that West, a clear genre enthusiast, took the atmosphere seriously.

HotD doesn't constantly wink at you. The gore is present and nasty but it's not as theatrically excessive as many horror fans seem to prefer. The emphasis was clearly on atmosphere and it accomplished the job delightfully. The actors aren't hamming it up and the characters aren't reference-laden quip machines. They're likeable and jokey without being buffoons.


I really liked Samantha. She reminded me, in a lot of ways, of Jamie Lee Curtis's character from Halloween, in that we got as much of a sense of her practicality as her social restraint. People love analysing what Final Girls mean but I think one of their defining attributes is that they tend to be grounded, practical people.

A lot of her personality comes through as she deals with her desperate financial straits. Maybe it's because I just moved to a new city and I'm broke as fuck right now, but I empathized with the hassles Samantha experienced in finding a new place and I probably would have taken the creepy old man up on his offer, too. A lot of movies love to harp on the whole "money is the root of all evil" chestnut, but the simple fact is that money is like food: you need it to get by.

The other thing I really liked about Samantha is the fact that, like the capable Ms. Strode before her, she can kick a surprising amount of ass when called to. She isn't an invincible superchick, but when the hammer falls she does real damage to her pursuers. I was really impressed with the way the character handled herself. She truly was heroic. While I don't want to give away the ending, I gotta say that it took cojones to do what she did. It's out of my league.

Also, while I'm on the cast, props to Tom Noonan as the creepy old guy who offers Samantha the job. He's that right mix of being harmless and just a little off. I really liked his work.

The Pacing

The last thing I wanted to talk about is the most divisive issue of the movie, which is the slow pacing of the narrative. The runny-runny-stabby-stabby stuff all happens within the last half-hour or so, so most of the movie has a slow-burn effect as Samantha takes a really sketchy job and explores this creepy old house.

West has said in interviews that he was trying to ape the narrative structure of many classic horror movies, especially the original Halloween, where the big payoff didn't happen until the tail end of the movie. Some detractors say the movie is too slow-paced and nothing happened, while others say that the first group is a bunch of simpletons who only care about gore and guts and shallow instant gratification.

Me, I'm on the fence.

A slower, most classic sense of pacing doesn't automatically make a better movie. I've seen other filmmakers try it and was bored to tears by the result. However, most of the people who want hard, fast, relentlessly gory horror often have lost their capacity to appreciate anything with any subtlety. I have spent years defending The Blair Witch Project against these kind of arguments.

Ultimately there are going to be people who are turned off by HotD but there was enough meat on those bones to keep me thoroughly entertained.

Go check it out. And keep an eye on this guy. I like his style.

This post is part of the Final Girl Film Club. For those of you who dug this post, welcome to my humble little blog. I'm a big horror fan and I like to apply my highly-honed, liberal-arts education bullshit shellacking skills to the stuff I enjoy. I cover movies, books, games, and music. We also got a podcast here. Welcome aboard!

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

This Year's Bram Stoker Award Winners

Every year the Horror Writers Association presents the Bram Stoker writer's award at the World Horror Convention. I like to follow these as they give you an excellent reading list for the year. They just published their recent list of winners and I thought I'd share 'em with you. I always go for the first novelist winners first. It's a great way to get on the ground floor with some new talent.

Happy hauntings, fellow ghouls!

Novel: Audrey's Door, Sarah Langan (Harper)
First Novel: Damnable, Hank Schwaeble (Jove)
Long Fiction: The Lucid Dreaming, Lisa Morton (Bad Moon Books)
Short Fiction: In The Porches Of My Ears, Norman Prentiss (PS Publishing)
Anthology: He Is Legend: An Anthology Celebrating Richard Matheson, Christopher Conlon (ed.) (Gauntlet Press)
Collection: A Taste of Tenderloin, Gene O'Neill (Apex Book Company)
Non-Fiction: Writers Workshop of Horror, Michael Knost (Woodland Press)
Poetry: Chimeric Machines, Lucy A. Snyder (Creative Guy Publishing)

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Academy Awards Tribute to Horror

This past week during the Academy Award ceremonies, Taylor Lautner and Kristen Stewart of Twilight fame came onstage to present a tribute to the great horror films of yesteryear. Almost immediately, the internet horror community blew in righteous indignation. How dare they bring up the kids from Twilight. Why did they keep using the same movies in their montage? Blah blah blah.

Shut up.

Maybe I hold a subconscious wish that the genre was given more legitimacy in the mainstream, but it's nice to be acknowledged. It's nice to hear that horror is still the most popular genre and that many of the biggest names in the industry got their start scaring people. It's nice to see scenes from Evil Dead 2 and Leprechaun played at a big Hollywood event.

It's nice to be appreciated.

But then, I was always a softie.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Apt Pupil

Man, that Todd Bowden is a pretty messed up kid.

I recently re-read Stephen King's Different Seasons, the four-part novella collection that included Apt Pupil. It had been a long time since I read the book and even longer since I'd seen the movie and I wanted to revisit them and make a comparison. I recalled that I liked the movie version better because it was more subtle and natural. I felt that having Todd Bowden turn into a serial killer and spree shooter cheapened the psychological impact of the story and turned the whole piece into a broad EC Comics morality tale. I also had a hard time buying that Dussander would go from frail and haunted old man to cackling murderer. Still, I loved the interplay between these two strong, dynamic characters and the idea that the horror in the story was borne of a morbid young man's curiosity about the Holocaust.

Having re-experienced the story again, I can say that both hold up well. I found I liked King's story more than I remembered it and I noticed interesting differences in interpretation of the two characters.

The first thing that struck me as a key difference between the two versions was how much older and more angry the movie version of Todd Bowden was.

The Todd Bowden of the story is a 13 year old boy. He's a brightly-smiling sociopath, like the girl from The Bad Seed. He's clearly overindulged by permissive parents and he's able to avoid suspicion simply by being exceptional in every other category.

In contrast, the movie version of Todd Bowden is a senior in high school. He's edgier and angry, glowering at his friends and family, and always seems to be on the verge of snapping. He gets by because he's handsome and a good student and talented athlete, but he's not wearing a mask like the Todd from the book. I think the reason the characters are so different is because of Todd's family.

We see a lot of more of Todd's parents in the novel. They're touchy-feely and indulgent, and they are almost willfully blind to warning signs of Todd's monstrous nature. Todd's father in particular reminisces about his father's heavy-handed style of parenting and hopes to be "friends" with his son. As the story progresses and Todd's behavior degenerates, Todd's father occasionally becomes frightened of the subtle changes in his son's personality, but he ignores these observations. It's clear that novel-Todd's family are partially responsible for what Todd became.

I've long felt that horror often has a conservative thematic streak. It's the genre of Don't: Don't open that door, Don't read that book, Don't sneak off with your lover. The Nice Suburban Child Gone Wrong is not exactly a new monster, and it seems to be borne from the fear of permissive parenting, of what happens when a child is raised without boundaries. While I don't believe that Stephen King is a conservative storyteller, the novella version of Todd is much more sociopathically evil and much more of a boogeyman precisely because he was allowed to be.

The film version of Todd Bowden comes from a much different environment. While he's also a straight-A golden boy, we sense that Todd comes from a pressure-cooker home. We only see his parents briefly, but when we do meet them they're usually ordering Todd around. The scene where Dussander comes over for a visit feels very different from the book. Todd's father is a cigar smoking blowhard, tossing verbal jabs at his son while Todd stews in resentment. We get the sense that Todd comes from one of those "winning is everything" families and Todd is on the verge of snapping.

I think the differences in the character's personality changes the reason both Todds seek out Dussander. The Todd of the novel approaches Dussander with a sort of dark, childish innocence. Nothing has ever been denied him, so he chooses to indulge himself in his new morbid interest because he doesn't know any better. The movie Todd seems to approach Dussander as more of an outlet for his rage. Just after meeting him, he says that he wants to know everything they won't tell him in school. He's looking for something outside his framework, and he's angry and broken enough to look for it in a Nazi war criminal.

Dussander remains very similar between the two stories. Both are nervous shut-ins, both have locked their real identities deep inside themselves, both come alive again after being forced to revisit the dark parts of their past, and both indulge the cruel sides of their souls through murder. The primary difference between the two interpretations of the character was how Dussander viewed his relationship with Todd.

The novel version of Dussander never stops hating Todd. Though he feels a grudging respect for the boy, it's clear that he views his relationship with Todd as adversarial. As Dussander reawakens over the course of the story, we begin to understand that Todd is playing with fire. The shifting power dynamic between the two is fraught with much more tension in the novella.

In contrast, the movie version of Dussander is much more affectionate to Todd. While they are clearly not friends, Dussander almost seems grateful that Todd has reinvigorated him. He becomes more animated and alive as the movie goes on, and we see that he takes comfort in finally having someone to be honest with. The movie focuses on scenes of Dussander sharing his stories with Todd, and he becomes more comfortable and blasé about the horrors of his past.

The novella is much more violent than the movie. In the book, both Todd and Dussander begin murdering local winos on a regular basis in an attempt to quiet nightmares of the Holocaust. Only one person is murdered in the movie, but both men take a hand in the killing.

I felt the scale of violence was unrealistic in the King novel. Setting aside the notion that it's probably a bad idea to murder people in an attempt to suppress nightmares about killing, I felt that the scale of violence pushed a psychological horror story into a much more simplistic realm. Many horror stories are about what happens to people who seek forbidden knowledge and Apt Pupil definitely fits in that mold. However, I felt the escalation of violence was too sudden. While Todd was quite the little shit in the story, I don't believe that he would suddenly get a double-digit body count after having contact with Dussander. I also found it difficult to believe that a feeble old man could kill a half-dozen men on sheer wickedness alone.

Having said that, I found that I liked the King ending much more the second time around.

One of the chief differences between the book and the movie is that Todd completely avoids suspicion by the end of the movie, save for a nosy guidance counsellor he's able to scare off. In the book, the people investigating Dussander are much more suspicious of Todd's story. Dussander holds blackmail information over Todd's head throughout both tales and in the novella we see Todd's state of mind more readily. Todd becomes trapped in his own games until the only way out is through his death. In the end he goes out in a blaze of glory, killed by police after a shooting spree. While this ending is less chilling than the one in the movie, I liked reading how King slowly built the pressure on the boy, making the trap tighter and more inescapable.

In the movie, Todd only kills the drifter Dussander lures into his house. The man was already half-dead, having been stabbed and thrown down the flight of stairs and Todd coldly finishes the job under Dussander's watchful eye. While that appears to be the end of Todd's violent streak, we see that the act has fundamentally changed him. He's now colder and more hardened, able to viciously manipulate his guidance counsellor the way Dussander manipulated him. In the novella, Todd and Dussander are unaware of each other's murderous activities but I think it was important that they shared the experience. That way, rather than being a tale about a storyteller and his audience, Todd truly becomes Dussander's pupil.

I want to touch on this subject carefully as Brian Singer, the director of Apt Pupil, is a gay man and his work tends to get filtered through his sexuality. Having said that, there are strong homoerotic elements in the film version. It's a fascinating twist on the tale and I think it's been largely overlooked by the horror community.

Watching the movie, I couldn't help but be reminded of Gods and Monsters, a story about the elderly director of The Bride Of Frankenstein and his relationship with his gardener. Both movies star Ian McKellan in the older role and both involve him being reawakened to life, with his awakening in Gods and Monsters occurring in a much more sexually explicit way.

While there are no overt hints that anything sexual is going on between Todd and Dussander, there is an intimacy between them. I'm reminded of a particular scene when Todd dozes by Dussander's fire, listening to the man talk about the formalities of mass executions. It's a dreamy, poignant scene, one where the intimacy of the characters almost seems to go beyond audience and storyteller. Later, when Dussander is invited to dinner with the Bowdens, Todd's father chides him for being "different." Could it be that Todd is an outsider and seeks comfort with other outsiders, even if they are horrible old monsters like Dussander?

For me, the most revealing moment in the movie is when Todd receives a blowjob from the girl he takes to a party. After he fails to perform, she asks if he's actually into girls. In the book, Todd is able to come back after fantasizing about horrible concentration camp experiments. The moment is meant to convey that Todd has crossed a line, that he can only be excited by the inhuman. The movie plays the scene much more ambiguously. Todd becomes quiet after the girl makes fun of him. We don't know what's going on in his head. The silence is telling.

Dussander experiences a similar moment with the drifter. In the book, the murders happen off-stage and the victims don't get any speaking lines. The drifter in the movie, played by awesome genre vet Elias Koteas, attempts to seduce Dussander into allowing him to stay the night. What follows is a tense scene where the drifter flirts with Dussander, only to fall victim to his knife. It's a great scene, especially since so much of their conversation reflects earlier conversations between Todd and Dussander. I wondered if Dussander was effectively murdering Todd in effigy, and why the scene was so sexually charged.

So which one did I like better?

It's a tough call. The King novella was brilliantly written. All the best stuff on-screen came directly from the book. He's a master storyteller and he created a great psychological horror piece. I don't believe a better or more honest horror story has ever dealt with the Holocaust. The big weakness of the novella came when the story left the intimacy of the characters and went into conventional bloody horror territory.

The movie version was excellent, but after reading the book it felt rushed. Too much good stuff happens too fast. I would liked to have seen a longer cut of the movie with a more leisurely pacing. I'm told there's been a stage version of Apt Pupil, which is something I would love to see. The core of the horror comes from these two characters interacting with each other and the intimacy of theater would be a perfect venue for the tale.