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!

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