By Daniel Spada
Minimalism in horror films has the distinct possibility of undermining the genre altogether. Not so much the absence of such an approach, but the lack of popularity reflects the need for instant gratification that is so deeply embedded within our culture. The more recent iconography that defines the horror film genre emphasizes grandiose conceptions of evil and reveals the trouble and reservations with which Western audiences grapple when viewing such a film. Horror film directors whose intent is to reinvent or consciously revise the genre are scarce because audiences are content with simply acknowledging the classic iconography that this particular genus of filmmaking has evoked, and are privy to ironic tendencies that would certainly offset their appreciation or enjoyment of the film and make them wary to come back for more.
The simple title of Ti West’s The House of the Devil explicitly puts the ownership of the house at the forefront. It would be reasonable to assume that the audience is not totally unaware of the macabre hiding underneath the woodworks of said abode, but that they are more concerned with the physical representation of the evil that is clearly lurking behind those closed doors. The rhetorical underpinnings of West’s authorial style and play with realism (making this markedly an art-horror entry) show a reverence for the genre (at least in the classical sense), with nothing in the film hinting at a satirical or mocking tone. West is neither imitating nor parodying horror, but paying homage (akin to Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut’s engagement with the American genre films they so heavily revered) and playing with the audiences’ expectations of what is appropriately categorized as horror. By doing so, he “implicitly critiques contemporary horror cinema” while also creating a new future life for the film genre commonly known as horror.
West begins the film strategically, with text on the screen that hints not only at the physical Satanic ritual that occurs at the end of the film, but also the theoretical underpinnings regarding beliefs in the existence of such cults. Therein lies part of the importance of the era in which the film takes place. In American culture, the 1980s were marked by a major rise in people who actually did believe in the existence of Satanic Cults so this is factually correct information supplied by Mr. West (he consistently refers to it as “Satanic panic” paranoia in interviews). However, there is no evidence to show that the events in the film are based on some sort of unexplained truth to which the text alludes. This is not uncommon with horrors film from the 1970s and 1980s; some of the most popular ones purporting fact-based events include The Amityville Horror and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It is important to note that this is a just simple rhetorical device used on West’s part to engage with both the genre and the viewer.
The common horror genre tropes are all there: a haunted house, the presence of evil in some form, an innocent young girl (whose decisions, although some would call stupid, are realistically conceived and depicted), etc. It is also impossible to miss the iconography that defines the film as horror: the creaky and creepy Victorian house in which Mr. and Mrs. Ulman live, the extensive use of shadows and low-key lighting when Samantha is roaming around the house (knife in hand), and the discovery of evil at the climax of the story. Ti West reinvents and revises the horror film genre by skillfully emphasizing the cognitive response of the audience, in addition to the aforementioned movement towards realism and implicit critique of the current state of horror cinema (which acts as the cultural commentary of the film).
Before continuing on to what West achieves and how he does it in relation to the genre, it is important to consider The House of the Devil’s narrative framework, coupled with its aesthetic style, to give a sense of what exactly the audience is dealing with, because it directly relates to how they view the film and react to certain shots and sequences. The House of the Devil only partially follows the requirements of the Discovery Plot — there is no talk about what Samantha might find in the rooms of the Ulman home, but there is that basic overarching narrative ploy of discovery and confrontation that defines the first two essential movements of the Discovery Plot structure. However, in The House of the Devil the discovery and confrontation are combined in the climax.
It is not until 39 minutes through the film that the first violent, bloody act occurs (and images henceforth depicted on-screen), the intention of which is to evoke a cognitive response of shock and awe in the viewer, although the act is not entirely surprising. The setup is a tip-off: a young woman driving through a cemetery stops to light her cigarette. When a young man comes up to her window with a lighter, seemingly out of nowhere, her fright is directly mirrored by the audience’s – it is a “jump” moment, but not in the manipulative sense. The gunshot is sudden, but not completely unexpected. The execution is perfectly calculated for optimum audience response. West states that the importance of it “was what it would accomplish to the audience’s emotional response for the rest of the movie.” The viewer now explicitly knows more than Samantha, and possibly fears for her safety. The initiation of a sexual discussion by Mrs. Ulman puts her at unease (and the audience as well). From the moment that the Ulmans leave, to the point at which they are reintroduced, West lets his film breath, and simultaneously breathes new life into the horror film genre.
The current state of horror cinema is largely characterized in part by throwing victims into horrific scenarios and showing how they deal with them. What sets The House of the Devil apart from present trends and its predecessors is that it is rich with characterization. Throughout the film, Samantha becomes an empathetic figure. We watch her stress over money (a familiar problem with college students, which plays toward the realism of the film) and become apprehensive when Mr. Ulman tells her that there is no child she will be watching after. We watch her explore the house, dancing around to the The Fixx’s 1983 hit “One Thing Leads to Another” on her giant Sony Walkman. The audience becomes concerned with her wellbeing.
The film, in essence, is not very suspenseful because the audience is aware of information not available to Samantha. Since Samantha is the main character and the bulk of the film is filled with sequences of her doing mundane human activities, like watching television and eating pizza, the viewer is forced to either accept said circumstances or reject them (the most common backlash thrust upon the film has been people calling it “boring” or “slow”). What makes West’s technique so effect is the contrast between the disparate sources of fear: Samantha walking around an ominous empty house versus Samantha surrounded by a Satanic cult and a deformed figure pouring blood into her mouth; the horror of not knowing versus the horror of discovery and confrontation; finally, routine versus ritual.
When the strobe lights and flashing kicks in around the one hour and 17 minute mark (with less than 20 minutes left remaining), the viewer is plunged into a disorienting state – the same state which Samantha is surely in. Samantha’s “felt agitations” are reflected in the audience’s “analogous emotional state” as a distinctly physical response. Samantha’s physical state and reaction to being tied up (trying to break herself free) is caused by her fearful cognitive state. Samantha’s response is one of fear, disgust, and repulsion. It only worsens when her vision clears and she sees the deformed figure standing above her (she is situated on the pentagram at this moment) who is about to cut its own wrist and pour its blood into a skull as a sort of funnel going into her mouth.
Samantha’s response to the Satanic ritual she was the unlikely participant of and the deformed figure’s impurity partly define The House of the Devil as an art-horror entry. Samantha’s repeated flashbacks to the deformed figure after her escape from the pentagram, and the subsequent slowing down of her ultimate escape from the house, shows a preoccupation with its monstrous façade (which she, undoubtedly, will never forget). Her complete aversion to its physical being creates a tension within the viewer.
Critics of the last 20 minutes of the film cite the change in tone and pacing to be problematic. This analysis shows more about them than it does West. The switch from meditations in a minimalist setting emphasizing minimalist actions to maximum intensity (but still in a minimalist style) is done in a way that draws attention to itself – and that is exactly the point, to stress and heighten the contrast. By the time the Satanic ritual begins, we care enough about Samantha to root for her. We want her to shoot Mr. Ulman at the end. We want her to get help and get away.
The conditions under which Samantha’s character is built are believable and realistic, which make the last shot all the more sad and terrifying. Being a college student in need of cash is not a foreign prospect, especially in today’s economy. She likes pizza. She enjoys listening to music on her walkman and dancing. She isn’t averse to snooping around a house that is not hers. She is a curious, intelligible young woman who just needs money to make rent.
The fact that the monster (well, monsters if you consider Victor and Mr. & Mrs. Ulman) of the film is both more human than expected (and much less “big” than what Western audiences, if they do, usually conceive of the devil or evil) and does not appear until the last 20 minutes is a testament to the will of Ti West’s filmmaking. He realigns what we fear (implication versus reality), how we fear it (cognitive versus physical), and makes us challenge the actual fear itself and how we conjure it up. The movements of the film are dissimilar insofar that what we have been told about meaning in horror films is a cop out: what usually has meaning (the physical presence of evil or the devil, violence, blood and gore, etc.) is comparable to what usually doesn’t have meaning (mundane human activities, what precedes the physical presence of evil or the devil and the violence, blood and gore, etc.). This strategy is barely, if ever, used effectively in the horror film genre.
The lack of dialogue is supplemented by Jeff Grace’s piano and orchestral heavy score. The mix of quiet piano keys and orchestral music (the intensity of which rises throughout to the climax of the film) carries a certain power that parallels the action. The score becomes a language unto itself, not unlike the language of the cinematography or editing. West again tips his hat to some of the forefathers of the genre and the bygone era in which the film takes place: the opening credits (shot in 1970s/early 1980s style, using the zoom instead of the dolly and yellow-font title credits over by freeze frame shots) echo the electronic synthesizer music of John Carpenter and Goblin (who frequently collaborated with the master of Italian giallo films Dario Argento).
Extended long takes are efficiently used to show Samantha performing aforementioned mundane human activities and they are effectively used in the sense that they show her at a remove (akin to the perspective of a documentary) and enhance the realism of the film. The house of the title itself looks like any old Victorian home you might find Upstate. However, the way the film emphasizes the temporal (interior and exterior) space of it adds to the eerie atmosphere already been established.
The theme of innocence is explored in a way unlike most horror films today. Since the viewer spends so much time with Samantha, we are much more in touch with her innocence than if she had just been thrown into the Satanic ritual right at the onset of the film. In an inversion of expected genre conceits, it is the adult talking about sex rather than the adolescent (Mrs. Ulman rather than Samantha, who is not very receptive to the conversation at hand – and there is rarely talk of sexual interest or identity even between Samantha and Megan, only a fleeting mention of a boy Megan is seeing and Samantha’s roommate having sex). This aspect of the film shows discipline and reserve, with which most horror directors struggle (sex is so commonly exploited in horror films it seems commonplace and natural).
The House of the Devil also subtly engages with sub-genres of horror, in particular that of the slasher film and the haunted house film. Characteristic of the slasher film (which was popularized in the late 70s and early 80s by such films as Black Christmas, Halloween, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Friday the 13th, etc.) is that of a younger generation being the target of an older generation, the showdown between the main character and the force of evil (usually a killer, but in the case of The House of the Devil it is a Satanic cult), and the eventual freedom of the protagonist, which the audience later finds out is not truly freedom (in Samantha’s case she is impregnated with Satan’s child). On the other hand, the haunted house genre has been around since the advent of the horror genre itself, most popularly seen in The Amityville Horror (1979), The Shining (1980), and the more recent, independently made hit Paranormal Activity (2007). The House of the Devil maybe a little too obviously lends itself to the haunted house genre, especially when reflecting on West’s exploration of the interior and exterior space of the Ulman’s house and its surroundings.
To make an object that is ordinary and common into something that should be approached with apprehension and even “fetid disgust” is an incredible feat which Mr. West accomplishes. Pizza, now known as some sort of qualifying college cuisine, becomes a harbinger of doom. This should make the viewer reflect on the ontological root of fear and consider the multifarious possibilities of where it may hide (unconsciously), including what we need to survive (food).
About the writer: Dan Spada has a Bachelor’s in Women Studies and Film from Hunter College. He currently works for Tribeca in the Acquisitions Department. Dan was on the Pre-screener Committee for the Hampton’s International Film Festival taking place this October (2014) and was on the selection committee for this year’s Rooftop FIlms Summer Series.