Monday, July 19, 2010

[Film Review] The House of the Devil

Somewhere during the conception of The House of the Devil, Ti West must have decided that simply setting his mash note to the horror films of the late '70s or early '80s in the time period which saw their genesis wasn't enough. Such an approach wouldn't hew closely enough to his vision of the perfectly distilled apotheosis of those films, so he went a step further and created a film which looks like it might be a lost artifact from that era. Employing the film grain, title techniques and stilted dialogue structure which characterize those movies, all these techniques are thankfully employed for something other than raw nostalgia.

What's most incredible about this movie is that it blatantly tells us what it's going to do and then proceeds to do it, but we're still amazed when it happens. This is a movie with a very particular title, which opens with a title card explaining that what we're about to see is based on unexplained events surrounding Satanic cults. When Tom Noonan shows up, acting creepy and evasive, we already know what we're in for. The fascinating interplay between Noonan's intimidating physiology and almost absurdly gentle voice has been so often played to unsettling effect that we know as soon as he appears what his role in the proceedings is going to be. These obvious telegraphs are played out to their fullest extent to inculcate paranoia in the classic Ira Levin sense, in which we can't help but interpret even the most innocent gesture in anything other than the most damning light.

House's filmic vocabulary leans heavily on that of its "contemporaries," especially in its use of camera zoom rather than camera dolly. Its editing is also quite blunt, at least until the later stages of the film, when the protagonist enters the titular house. At that point, the film takes an utterly brilliant turn that follows its initially quiet departure from its forebears, signifying that what we're about to see is a much more delicate visual telling of the story whose beats are ingrained in its audience's marrow.

I don't want to scrutinize too closely here, since House definitely deserves a close reading analysis in the future, but the shift that happens so subtly is that the film moves from a strict focus on mise en scene to instead employ the most brilliant use of framing that I've yet seen in a horror film. That transformation perfectly mirrors the gradual change from the visual techniques that characterize those early slasher films, in which POV shots of the killer and unseen monsters behind the back of the characters were centered on screen, to the films of today, in which our anxiety is engaged by what's just offscreen instead of what we can actually see. The torture porn films that have been the mainstay of horror for the last decade or so rely heavily on this use of framing, but with little payoff, whereas House uses that framing as a way to create a psychological negative space that's much more effective than any number of jump scares.

House goes for a slow burn. It doesn't stop at refusing to have a very low body count, and instead goes so far as to eschew deploying almost any kind of overt scares whatsoever. That's the heart of the fantastic trick that it manages to accomplish: by playing directly into the fact that it knows its audience knows that something horrible is going to happen any second now, any second now, but refusing to give that tension any kind of release, it makes its audience do all the work in getting to the point where even the smallest deviation from the norm is terrifying. And then it doubles down on that audacious achievement by not giving us even that smallest deviation, instead keeping everything we see completely normal for a frankly amazing amount of time. For most of the movie, everything is fine, which we all know means that everything is secretly horrible, but there's no overt confirmation of that latter perception.

The score works to this end, being mostly comprised of a magnificently detuned piano which plonks out very short sequences of notes to emphasize just how little we're seeing happen onscreen. Occasionally, small string suites swell quietly in the background, but it's not until the frenetic climax of the film that the music really makes itself known. When it does so, it takes control of the film, switching its role from supporting the lack of action onscreen to driving it, a perfect switch that emphasizes just how drastically the tonal shift of the story has taken root.

House takes an almost entirely lifeless, worn-down narrative form and uses the very tiredness of its genre trappings to carve out a new exploration of why that narrative gained popularity in the first place, as well as using its tropes as the launching point to raise questions about themes that its progenitors never would have bothered to tackle. This is that very rarest breed of horror film, the kind that not only succeeds at creating a palpable atmosphere of dread, but then goes on to utilize that emotion to explore something greater than the sum of its parts. The closest parallel I can think of in terms of the sheer proficiency of its craft is Session 9, and anyone who's interested in horror film as something more than a simple series of onscreen bloodbaths would do very well to seek this movie out.

This review was written as a contribution to Stacie Ponder's Final Girl Film Club, a regular feature on the Final Girl horror film blog, an excellent blog which you should start reading if you're not already.

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