Tuesday, 13 July 2010

House Of The Devil
(Ti West, 2009)

Along with seemingly everyone else in the civilised world, I’m a long-time reader of of Stacie Ponder’s Final Girl blog, but until now I’ve never before managed to wrangle by writing schedule and idiosyncratic film-watchin’ habits sufficiently to allow me to take part in her Film Club. The overwhelmingly positive notices received by Ti West’s “House Of The Devil” though, together with the fact that the DVD seems to be on the shelves at a knock-down price every time I go to the shops, persuaded me to take a chance on it despite my general ambivalence toward modern horror, and… well fuck it, how many words is it going to take me to say “I had a copy lying around, so thought I might as well watch it and do a review”?

So, hmm – bit of a strange one, this “House of the Devil”, eh? Or rather, not so ‘strange’ at all really, given that it’s a film so thoroughly marinated in the established iconography of horror cinema that its supposedly terror-inducing contours end up seeming more cozy than anything – pure comfort food for fans of the genre.

What renders “House Of The Devil” unusual is rather the extent to which it seems to make a stand against the tide of conventional modern horror, offering no enticements or explanations at all to viewers unschooled in classic horror aesthetics, and the way it… well, uh, y’know, just the way in which it kind of jams together elements of the past in order to – in a sense – create something new.

Wes Craven’s “Scream” often gets rather tediously hailed as ‘the first post-modern horror film’, a claim that never ceases to infuriate me, partly because the film’s self-referential ‘innovations’ had already been explored ad-nausuem by smarter b-movies through the ‘70s and ‘80s, and partly because any argument that lends legitimacy to Craven’s candy-ass, cynical, misogynistic avalanche of crap is sure to get my goat. (Maybe you think differently? That’s ok, we can discuss it later, in the parking lot.)

In the past few years however, I believe we have seen popular culture begin to eat itself in a far more thorough-going and exciting fashion than the ‘90s irony culture embodied by “Scream” could have imagined, as a new generation ploughs the past back into endless new creations through filters of memory, deterioration and nostalgia. This methodology can be seen running wild through the world of music at the moment, via such flash-in-the-pan coagulations of aesthetics as ‘Hauntology’, ‘Witch House’*, ‘Glo-fi’, etc., but “House Of the Devil” is perhaps the first feature film I’ve seen which picks up these ideas and really runs with them, emerging as perhaps a good contender the first, genuine, 100% POST-MODERN horror movie.**

Much as Quentin Tarantino has made a lucrative and hugely enjoyable career out of crow-barring together all his favourite bits from old exploitation movies and imagining what might have transpired if they had had the resources, time and technical proficiency of Hollywood behind them, Ti West here seems intent on revisiting all the joys and peculiarities of VHS era horror that (presumably) enthralled him as a teenager. Step by step, he shows us what might have been if one of those weird, indefinably fascinating ‘80s shelf-fillers had been made as a labour of love by a talented a director who was able to take his time, concentrating on the film’s overall artistry and making those funny peculiarities a central feature of proceedings, rather than just a random distraction.

“House of the Devil”s plot-line is so minimal it’s scarcely worth reiterating. Girl gets baby-sitting job > goes to remote, spooky house > there are Satanists, in case you were wondering. I forget who it was who once defined gothic horror as “pretty girl goes into old house, gets the shit scared out of her”, but that's the deal here, no more no less. Most of the enjoyment in the movie arises not from the narrative, but from watching West shift his film through a whole universe of horror aesthetics with all the kaleidoscopic richness and randomised drift of a tumblr blog.

The film’s opening half hour, in which we bear witness the heavenly minutiae of our heroine Samantha (Jocelin Donahue)’s life as a small town college student in the 1980s, plays out like an extended love letter to all the oddly captivating prosaic detail that’s ever made your heart sing on an old horror tape. And when the actual horror itself finally gets going, we can sit back and let ourselves ricochet happily between slasher-era sartori (the takeaway pizza, the repurposed kitchen knife, the unsettling, jokey answerphone messages and all those endless phonecalls), late period ‘70s gothic (unnatural light through the stained glass windows, the harpsichord at the bottom of the stairs), hints of “Shuttered Room” style mad-relative-in-the-attic antics and Texas Chainsaw style deformed killer family mythos, Dennis Wheatley-approved old school Satanism, Phantasm-esque otherworldly graveyard shtick, all-purpose American haunted house tropes…. you name it, it’s probably in there somewhere.

Where West’s MO very much differs from Tarantino though is that “House Of The Devil” is a surprisingly subtle and slow-moving film – an approach that seems very brave given the fuck-yeah-gore approach favoured by most modern horror. In fact, it occurs to me that for a non-horror-fan viewer, unprepared to drink in the steady stream of referential, nostalgic reverie, “House Of The Devil” could easily become an unbearably dull experience – an exercise in deliberate mediocrity, lacking any entertainment-based pay-off.

As such, I can’t help but admire Ti West for taking a chance and placing the success of his film solely in the hands of those of us weird enough to react with joy at the sight of Samantha’s big, orange-padded walkman headphones, or at the beautiful climbing-the-stairs shots based on the bit where they find the mutilated body in ‘Night Of The Living Dead’. And given that he has apparently managed to make the film a roaring success on that basis, what can we say except HIGH FIVE, DUDE? What further proof could be needed that the Age of the Nerd is upon us?

The menacing kitsch of the house itself is wonderfully realised. These aren’t the kind of Satanists who live in rotting gothic splendour and leave a big ol’ grimoire conveniently open on the coffee table – rather their home evokes a horrid neo-classical banality that seeks to recall the stifling atmosphere of a million repressive parental homes. On second viewing, the empty, airless still-lifes that West frames within the house are by far the most chilling aspect of the film, recalling the way David Lynch filmed the interiors of the Palmer house in “Twin Peaks”, or the inexplicable dread of Pupi Avanti’s “House Of Laughing Windows” (a film whose influence seems to loom large over “House Of The Devil”).

Moreover, these eerie interiors represent the key point at which “House Of The Devil” really begins to transcend its status as a mere horror-movie-about-horror-movies, providing us with echoes of abuse and loneliness more subliminally menacing than any pasty-faced demonic crone. After all, you can punch one of those, but try punching an Edward Hopper painting. (Ok, obviously you COULD punch an Edward Hopper painting, but I’m talking figuratively here, let’s not go there.)

In fact, the only thing that ended up marring my enjoyment of the film was the inevitable satanic bloodbath that concludes proceedings – an odd thing for me to say, given that I generally welcome satanic bloodbaths as a fine addition to any motion picture. But, whilst there are a few wonderfully spine-tingling ‘evil reveal’ scares to be had in the closing twenty minutes of “House Of The Devil” (I’d tell you about ‘em, but I wouldn’t want to spoil ‘em), the full realisation of the film’s satanic shenanigans is rather hum-drum and predictable, somehow managing to feel infinitely less satisfying that the hour of sublime mudanity that proceeded it. I mean it’s some ok Satanism I guess, but it’s no "Devil Rides Out", y'know?

Actually, I probably would have enjoyed the film a lot more if the evil Satanists hadn’t revealed their existence AT ALL, and if Samantha had just gone to the house, hung around, noticed a few things that were *slightly* not-right, got a bit worried, and gone home. That would have been an amazing movie – a daring affront to the audience’s satanic bloodbath-based expectations, and a brilliant example of a horror movie whose horrors are created entirely in the imagination of the viewer; a new benchmark for restraint and the power of suggestion in the genre.

Sadly though, this isn’t that film, and when the time comes, the blood is spilled, the robes are donned, the knives are drawn, the doors are banged, the corridors are frenziedly run down, the teeth are bared, the colours are drained, and I start involuntarily humming The Ramones “You Should Never Have Opened That Door”.

Which is probably just as well I suppose. I mean, would anyone be rushing out to see this movie if the reviews had amounted to “ok, so nothing actually happens at all, but there’s some nifty interior décor and some great shot compositions, and the main theme music is totally killer”..?

This Ti West is a smart cat, I think. He knew what he had to deliver, and he got around to it within eighty minutes (PRAISE THE LORD, A MODERN MOVIE THAT ACTUALLY ENDS ON TIME), without resorting to any shitty ‘jump scares’ or ‘lightning strike’ cutting, and whilst still managing to turn in a film that often seems to function more as an extended video art project on aesthetic fetishisation than a narrative horror flick.

One thing that helps him to pull it off, I think, is sheer technical skill. Watching old VHS movies, and low budget cinema in general, we get used to certain things. Y’know what I mean - scenes will be inexplicably filmed in long shot, dialogue will not match on-screen action, bizarre music will deafen us at random intervals, people will talk about nothing in particular for minutes on end whilst the camera remains static, and so on. Some viewers learn to tolerate these deficiencies as natural wastage in between the cool bits, whilst some of us actively embrace them as perverse statements of otherworldly, homemade charm. But at the same time, would anyone want to watch a competent modern movie full of *deliberately contrived* long-shot addled padding..? Seems doubtful.

And so, like Tarantino before him, this is where West wisely breaks from mere re-enactment of the past, making sure that “House Of The Devil” is instantly recognisable as a good film, in the middlebrow newspaper critic / film studies teacher sense of the term. His directorial style is flawless, the film is perfectly paced, and flows beautifully. Every single shot is carefully and interestingly composed, full of rich incidental detail. The cinematography and production design is top notch. The acting is excellent, and all of the characters are lively, engaging and sympathetic (props in particular to Mary Woronov and Tom Noonan as our oddly loveable Satanist couple). The music is fantastic (opening credits theme = TUNE).

Even through sequences in which nothing whatsoever is happening, the film is a joy to behold. I could happily have watched Samantha and her best friend eating pizza and discussing the local property market for hours.

Subsequently, the film gains much of its power from the fact that the movie industry doesn’t usually let us see such specialist aesthetic fetishisation and vague, uneventful narratives in the context of a quote-unquote ‘good film’. “House Of The Devil” is a ‘good film’ that is utterly in thrall to the forbidden magic of ‘bad films’, and, as usual, the mainstream critics, copywriters and squares just won’t know what the hell to make of it, other than to acknowledge that it’s there, that people are watching it and enjoying it, and that it can’t be ignored forever.

A modest creative success on its own self-defined terms, “House Of The Devil” is far from the greatest film most cult movie buffs will have seen this week/month/year, but it DOES hopefully represent the stirring of a promising new approach to horror in the 21st century, and, speaking as a life-long fan of the weird, the obtuse and the cultish, it is always nice when one of ‘our guys’ manages to make a splash in the big pond, however fleetingly. Put me down as officially looking forward to whatever Ti West does next.

* Is that the best contrived sub-genre name ever, or what? Lovecraft fans will be delighted to learn there’s already a Brighton club-night called “Dreams In The Witch House”.

**As with all “the first [whatever] EVER!” type proclamations, this claim is of course utterly fatuous, and readers are encouraged to write in and tell me why “Abbott and Costello Meet The Wolfman” or “House of Frankenstein” or something was actually the first ever post-modern horror movie.


deadlydolls said...

Great review. I can't tell you how much I loved this film (actually I can; it's somewhere on my blog) and I also agree that the ending is the least interesting thing in it. Still, a huge win all around and I can't wait to see what Ti West does next (as long as it's not Cabin Fever 3).

MrJeffery said...

Brilliant review.

Ben said...

Thanks both!

Much appreciated.

JohnBem said...

Excellent review. Nicely argued, nicely said. I stumbled over here via the Final Girl Film Club. I look forward to reading more of your entries.

Micah said...

yep, great review. i feel very informed. also loved this film.

but now i'm curious...and probably too young to get the joke...but what is the t-shirt referring to in the still that you selected above? 40 years is a long time.

Ben said...

Hi Micah - I've actually got no idea what that T-shirt mean either; maybe I'm too young too?

It's only on screen for a second, but I just thought it was an interesting detail/in-joke... one of many in this film.

7on7 said...

Oh, great review :)
Thanks for share.

lea said...

i haven't watch this movie but I already know the story through your review. Thumbs up!