Film Commentary

Impressions: Ti West’s House of the Devil

August 3, 2010
house of the devil

An incredible film review-and-essay by Hunter Stephenson on Ti West’s House of the Devil (2009):

“I don’t care whether the female characters in so many of the aughts’ horror films die or live or get naked while doing both. They’re too fake to die and too dumb to live.

The state of American horror and the presentation of females therein is funny because a lot of today’s non-amateur porn has the same freaking problem. There’s a reason why Brett Ratner loves Playboy: like a lot of the dudes at Platinum Dunes, his taste in pussy is as boring and airbrushed as his filmmaking.”

Hunter’s right.

And House of the Devil is certainly 2009’s best horror film, insofar as it at least goes toe-to-toe with Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist (for starkly different reasons, the latter being more of a psychosexual art house horror film).  The fear that is exorcised in House of the Devil, however, is a lot more basic (like a direct electrical socket to the subconscious).

It’s a shame, then, that the “best horror film of 2009” is, conceptually, an ersatz recreation and “best of” homage to the slasher/horror reels of the vintage ’70s and ’80s — a lineage of films that inherently defines its power (think Tobe Hooper, William Friedkin, John Carpenter [before he sucked], Wes Craven [before he sucked]).  This is as opposed to a progressive attempt at dethroning the Brett Ratner/Platinum Dunes paradigm that has (over the first decade of the aughts) metastasized across American horror cinema.  In that sense, Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist better succeeds as a progressive horror film that inadvertently deconstructs today’s glorified Goth industrial horror music videos (Resident Evil) and the unimaginative exploits of mainstream torture porn (Hostel, Saw).

House of the Devil, however, is deceptively kitschy.  It begins as a Reagan-era high school reunion of references, the stuff that American Apparel is made of.  The over-30s viewer is invited to sit back in his/her seat and reminisce over a bygone era of slasher films.  This is a comfortable chair to be in, of course, particularly for a horror veteran.

Someone get the popcorn.

Then, without caveat or seam, the picture incrementally devolves into an excruciating chimera of the menace that once tattooed the psyches of audiences that first espied Kubrick’s The Shining or Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It helps that the female lead in House of the Devil is svelte, ordinary and intelligent (therefore familiar) rather than voluptuous, naïve and dumb (therefore uninteresting).  I am vaguely reminded of Cécil De France’s performance in High Tension (released in 2004), a slasher film with a powerful female lead (a la Aliens-era Sigourney Weaver) that was enormously underrated.

It’s very simple, you see.  If the viewer can relate to the protagonist, then he or she will care about said protagonist’s livelihood near the end of the movie.

Yes, that lesson is grade school simple, but it’s something that Hollywood rarely understands.

HoTD also seems to actively explore another deep-seated taboo in Americana: Satanism and the Occult.  Ti West deftly designed the film as a part-time narrative study on the Satanic Panic that caromed through the media between the 1980s and the late 1990s, when claims and accounts of Satanic Ritual Abuse (SRA) were largely exacerbated and exorbitantly discredited.

But this is where Ti gets smart.

Throughout his film, he demonstrates the question:  Does that mean that none of these alleged incidents ever happened?

HoTD exists somewhere between the truth and the myth of SRA, and that’s partly why this film succeeds.

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