Ti West’s The House of the Devil is a peculiar, unassuming little film. It’s an ’80s horror movie created in 2009, filmed with the unmistakable grit and style of the era, but without any of the bells and whistles and camp of its time; it’s a Hitchcock movie without the Master’s portly silhouette lurking, one that keenly understands that the key to true suspense is anticipation and buildup. It’s not pure homage and fetish, though; it’s also the inimitable product of one Ti West, a modern horror filmmaker that keenly understands what makes the genre tick, and brings to the table the sense of creeping dread that only comes with extreme patience.
Because for long stretches of House of the Devil, nothing really happens. We’re trained to believe that something is going to, however: our heroine, nicely played by Jocelin Donahue, is housesitting for the night in a creepy old house, and she’s been hired by horror icon Tom Noonan, who at this point may as well be Vincent Price in terms of his presence signifying that something spooky is going down. And as she spends the entire film wandering around the shadowy expanse of the house, we expect something terrible to jump out from every corner, expect each room to contain unspeakable horrors. The thing is — and what makes The House of the Devil utterly brilliant — none of these things happen.
Until, of course, they do.
To root any deeper into the plot would be to spoil the very backbone of the film. Anticipation is an undervalued aspect of what makes a horror film kick. Deep tension and suspense is required for there to be any stakes; you can’t just fling images at us, browbeat us with a barrage of stimuli — that’s not what makes horror movies horrifying. It’s the idea that something awful is going to happen that is truly potent. The gore and the action is merely the payoff, and you need a good enough buildup to make the risk equal the reward.
Let’s put it this way: the scariest moment I experienced when watching Paranormal Activity 3 last year was not a moment in the actual film. See, the latest installment of the found-footage craze is chock-full of the mundane — say what you will about these films, but they know how to expertly craft their suspense for the best atmosphere possible — which lulls the receptive viewer into a certain false sense of security. Bubbling directly beneath the calm, though, is an off-kilter sense of edginess; we are implicitly aware that we are watching a horror movie, and that the filmmakers are going to try to jolt us out of our reverie. And so, as I watchedParanormal Activity 3 alone in a darkened house at 2a.m., I wasn’t even aware that I was on edge, until my dog drank out of the crapper. When she finished her thirst-quencher, and the toilet seat slammed back down onto the bowl, my heart leapt and my sphincter flexed. It was terrifying.
And so, as our unsuspecting babysitter dances around the creepy old house with The Fixx’s “One Thing Leads To Another” blaring from her Walkman, we expect something terrible to happen. It’s this sense of creeping dread — therefore intensifying the inevitable payoff — that Ti West works in almost exclusively; his early, low-budget thriller Trigger Man takes similar risks (with less atmosphere, even riskier), and his most recent full-length, The Innkeepers, focuses on human relationships before chucking ghosts into the equation. Still, it’s House of the Devil that manages to get everything exactly right: it’s ultimately one of the scariest, tensest horror films in recent memory, and trust that, even though I haven’t said anything about them, the film’s final moments are absolutely worth the investment.
Extra Credit: If you’re interested in more of Ti West’s work, look no further than the aforementioned The Innkeepers; the titular inn, located in small-town Connecticut, is a lovely setting, the characters are fully-fleshed and humane (and, as a bonus, very funny), and the scares — which, true to West’s name, don’t really arrive until the final frames — are utterly bone-chilling. Also, rewind to V/H/S, which we covered last week — West’s segment in that anthology film is a real shocker.
More 31 Days of Halloween:
Day 1: May
Day 2: The Night of the Hunter
Day 3: The Descent
Day 4: Night of the Demons
Day 5: Them
Days 6 & 7: Night of the Living Dead // Dawn of the Dead
Day 8: Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon
Day 9: A Tale of Two Sisters
Day 10: When a Stranger Calls // Amusement
Day 11: A Nightmare on Elm Street
Day 12: The Orphanage
Day 13: I Know What You Did Last Summer
Day 14: Dressed to Kill
Day 15: Deep Red
Day 16: Jeepers Creepers
Day 17: Black Sabbath
Day 18: V/H/S
Day 19: Sleepaway Camp
Days 20-22: The Mist, The Shining, & Silver Bullet
Days 23-24: Splinter & The Host
Day 25: The Nightmare Before Christmas
Day 26: Ginger Snaps
Days 27-28: Tales From the Crypt & Creepshow