Tuesday, 2 February 2010

The House of the Devil - Dir. Ti West

Ti West, the 29 year old filmmaker from Delaware, might not be a name you are familiar with -with regards to the horror genre of filmmaking - but if his future projects are anywhere near as good as his third directorial feature film ‘The House of the Devil’, then you will no doubt be hearing his name mentioned heavily in the next couple of years. West has so-far spent his time primarily creating cheap, B-Movie-esque horror films, however with ‘House of the Devil’ he changed his tactic and decided rather than ridiculing or satirizing the genre, to instead pay homage to it; in particular the haunted house/slasher subgenre. And the result is an eerie, well-shot, competently edited, suspense-fuelled ride back into the horror films of the 1970’s and 1980’s.

College student Samantha Hughes (Jocelin Donahue) is the archetypal female lead at the centre of the ritualistic story. Trying to gather enough money together so she may move out of her dorm, which she occupies with her room-mate Megan (Greta Gerwig), she reluctantly applies for a local babysitter gig. The prospect of watching television all night, while occasionally checking on a child and ultimately getting paid cash-in-hand appeals to her financial stricken nature straight away, however she has no idea what the mysterious Mr (Tom Noonan) and Mrs (Mary Woronov) Ulman have in store for the naive young student.

Filmed on 16mm stock to give the film that washed retro stylistic feel, ‘Devil’ is a technical back-into-the-past cinematic winner. Once the Hammer-esque titles follow the opening scene-setting sequence, you are instantly aware of the timeframe in which the film takes place. The mise-en scene, music and location provide the blank canvas, while West’s filmic strokes bring the piece to life. Professionally edited by the director himself with cinematography by the Eliot Rockett, both combine to create seamlessly evolving scenes and heavy suspense from the mildest situations.

Before we are even introduced to Mr Ulman, the sequence involving Samantha phoning the Ulman residence and applying for the job of babysitter on campus is so perfectly shot that the hairs stand up on the back of your neck simply from the sound of a phone ringing and a mysterious male voice on the other end. While the transition during the climax of the film challenges everything that has gone before, by hitting the audience continually with flashing, vibrant images of horrific situations that we try find to focus upon and understand initially, but then regret that decision once we know what is being shown.

To be entirely critical, the climax of the film also supplies the films largest failure in respect to the use of on-screen violence, blood and gore. In context of the whole film, the various uses of aesthetics (light, space) and technical know-how create the films intense atmosphere and terrifying nature. However with the excessive violence in the films concluding scenes, it goes past simply being shockingly terrifying, instead into the realm of shockingly violent. Not the effect I imagine Ti West was aiming for. The violent scenes themselves should not have been removed, but simply toned down.

Ti West’s ‘The House of the Devil’ is a refreshing addition to what has become a stale genre of film in recent years. The brilliant homage, respecting those that went before during horror’s contemporary hay-day, shows that not all film-makers are simply looking to copy, repeat and exploit, but admire, showcase and support the genre they have grown up with. If you want a meticulously, frightening trip down memory lane, rent or buy this film and you will not be disappointed.
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