Nothing about the horror conventions of Ti West’s satanic cult horror film The House of the Devil are wholly revolutionary or provoking.
Hell, the film was made to replicate the classics genre titles of the 1970’s and 1980’s. And if you watched this film with no prior knowledge about it, you’d believe that.
And yet, West’s The House of the Devil feels so incredibly right. What is revolutionary and provoking about West’s film is his technique. The House of the Devil was seemingly made by a hand dipped in the talent pool of Roman Polanski as the film is a perfect embodiment of suspenseful and terrorizing horror while replicating an absolute Hitchcockian sense.
West presents us with a extremely likeable character, the endearing, struggling and downright pretty college-aged girl named Samantha. Samantha, who is charmingly played by Jocelin Donahue, is looking for any source of income to pay for a new house and settles for a job opportunity as a babysitter on the same night as a full lunar eclipse is scheduled. But when she arrives at the old house, things aren’t what they first appeared to be.
As West slowly but surely unravels his tale, the audience increasingly learns more about the situation than our main character does, something quite common of Alfred Hitchcock’s best films. In most of today’s modern horror gore-porn films schlock value and twist surprises reign supreme. But here the true payoff comes in the form of West’s careful and tantalizingly slow pace that creeps into your conscious mind. You get the idea that each and every quick and long shot West included here means something to the value of the final product. West’s approach and technique has the same sincere patience as Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now or Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby.
And like many of the greatest horror classics, West only occasionally plays his hand throughout the film’s main body of storytelling. Instead, he uses atmosphere and known horror conventions such as a creepy old house and a collection of strange and mysterious (yet totally believable) characters led by the creepy Tom Noonan to build a tense and unmistakable sense of fear, all leading to a conclusion more eventful and even more stylistic than the already technically proficient rest of the film.
Part of West’s throwback to past films is the fact that the film was made with 16mm film. This gives the movie a retro stylistic appearance leaving you to believe that the film was made in the 1980’s. But it also gives it a grainy look that does nothing more but greatly increase the gritty and haunting atmosphere West strives for.
West also chose the perfect areas of Connecticut to film in. The seemingly isolated house Samantha spends the night in appears like a giant in the middle of nowhere with its grand porch and seemingly endless amount of doors leading to all sorts of strange rooms. West also used the campus of Central Connecticut State University to film the movie’s opening sequences, although I’m not sure what it says about CCSU’s campus when it can easily pass as a 1980’s locale.
Another item of importance is the way West uniquely tackles the concept of trying to mimic or recreate genre films of the past. West chose to genuinely replicate the styles used in horror films past, all of which is obviously visible in the many different shot choices and cinematography, among other stylistic values. No bones about it, it’s obvious that West was playing off the energy of films and directors he loves. This film is as much about him as it is anyone else.
What West successfully doesn’t do is parody the genre like the Scream series did. Nor does it exaggerate the genre like Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror ended up doing to the exploitation genre.
And because of this choice what comes is a respectable homage that is still a completely original artistic take on the genre. West opens the door for more artistic integrity in the horror genre, something that has been seemingly been lost since the days of filmmakers like Dario Argento and only rarely pops up in modern horror filmmaking.
While there’s definitely something very familiar about the babysitting job Samantha takes, the house she winds up in and the grainy view we as an audience get of it, it hasn’t been familiar for the last 25 years. And even so, the way West uses these common horror mythos is so outstanding and brilliant the film still manages to feel as fresh as it truly is.
If you’re bored by the patient way true horror auteur Ti West reveals his story, you probably aren’t a true fan of horror films. I can’t imagine anyone that’s in love with the entire ever-growing work of body known as the horror genre to be disappointed by such a subtle film that so carefully, so willfully and so perfectly executes everything a horror film is meant to be.