Midnight Screenings: The House of the Devil

With Ti West’s new film X both returning him to the horror genre for the first time in almost a decade and turning him to the backroads of America’s past, I thought I might return to the film that made his name all those year ago, a film that then felt like a genuine conjuration from cinema’s dark and demonic history.

One of the first films in the horror “mumblecore” genre of the late ‘00s and early ‘10s,  Ti West’s The House of the Devil explores the nexus point between American independent cinema in the ‘00s – scruffy DIY filmmaking, investment in human minutiae, openness to momentary fluctuations of emotion, relatively indeterminate and non-tendentious scripting designed to invite receptivity to human complexity – with horror’s emphasis on the ultimate unclarifiability and uncanniness of human experience. There’s a poetry to the thinking: both mumblecoreand horror feel around in the strangeness of experience, the odd excesses, the unexpected aporias, the potentialized gaps, the wounds within the surface that, when picked at (or even just noticed in passing), open up spaces for reconsideration, exploration, and even possibility. The House of the Devil was released in an era where horror was increasingly nasty-minded and vicious, emphasizing a certain kind of Grand Guignol precision and vicious craft. While West’s film alternately emphasizes ethereal ambience, slow-building atmosphere, and morbid curiosity, it still feels authentically disturbing and psychically dismembering. Through quotidian dread and an almost astonishing reduction of narrative and character matter to a brute, experiential portrait of human uncertainty, it manages to open a portal onto the world and into the mind that we cannot easily close.

It is, in other words, a Ti West film, of which there are unfortunately very few. Along with his 2011 follow-up The Innkeepers, West’s House has an independent film’s mental acuity for the incalculable subtleties of everyday life and the dormant significations that the most off-handed gestures can reveal. The film’s central sequence literally has protagonist Samantha Hughes (Jocelin Donahue) wandering around a house observing and tinkering with the strange intangible mystery of an essentially but not fully recognizable space. Her reason for being there is all-too-relatable: a college student in an unnamed wintry town in the early to mid ‘80s, she has five days to accrue the down payment on a new apartment and receives a somewhat ambiguous offer to “babysit” for a night in a house way out in the woods. Things get more unsettling when she gets there, not only because she learns that there isn’t really a child and she is instead there to babysit the owner’s elderly mother, but also because she is told this by Mr. Ulman, who is played by Tom Noonan. Once he and Mrs. Ulman (Mary Woronov) leave, Samantha wanders the house for a long while, and things go awry.

West concentrates solely on tempo, tone, and texture. The narrative, as it stands, is secondary to the experience of duration watching it, the precision (and sometimes glorious imprecision) of West’s imagination. Little “happens,” and when it does, it happens very suddenly and then is no more, the film finally exploding into a heaving suddenness. What matters, for West, though, isn’t the story; very little in House offers itself for our interpretation, as a text worthy of “reading” and “unpacking.” It strenuously refuses displacement to an abstract level, where the surface details of the screen “signify” or gesture toward meanings. Rather, West accrues almost intangible moments, existing for themselves and in relation but not in a narrative totality. We are invited to become more receptive to strangeness, to explore the film’s energies, not to explain them.

It is experiential cinema, a sinuous flow of slow zooms from undecidable point of views, wandering tracking shots that seem less knowing than searching, and inexplicable edits jutting the film’s fragments into each other, a cinematic poem to the dormant instability behind objects and experiences. There’s very little “specific” meaning behind any of this, and that makes the film all the more frighteningly unstable and unfathomable: it’s wall-to-wall concrete human detail, dozens of moments and objects and happenstances that exude observed humanity, and together they suggest how little has been conveyed, how in the dark we remain.

And it isn’t all pure technical precision either: West also exhibits a deliciously disruptive eye (and ear) for tonal inconsistency. When Samantha, after having spent 10 minutes or so slowly and meticulously perusing the house as we wait for something to disrupt the frame and frighten us, she then replays the same motions, replacing crawling curiosity with playful insouciance and indiscretion as she dances through the house, now apparently more comfortable. The eventual conclusion to the mini aria of motion and exploration, Samantha breaking a vase, is the stuff of all-too-human horror.

West’s film is all mood and minutiae, then, and, for the same reason, a quiet tour-de-force for West himself. His work here is remarkably committed to using non-diegetic elements such as cinematography (by Eliot Rockett) and editing (by West himself) to embody the early ‘80s, rather than simply costuming and set design, as most films do. It genuinely feels like a found film, a long-lost classic that dipped below the perceptual threshold for decades. Remarkably, when we get to the end, the film is still there: it offers no real closure, no final satisfaction. Deeply sinister and foreboding, turning the screws via slight manipulations, there’s not a single scene in the film’s first hour, barring roughly a minute-long intrusion involving Sam’s friend Megan (Greta Gerwig) where we briefly cut away from Samantha’s perspective for the only time in the film, that overtly nods to “horror.” Instead, it relies entirely on tonal (im)balance and subtle unease to ease our passage into a straightforwardly domestic hell.

Outside of key moments like that, The House of the Devil is a phenomenally, defiantly flatfilm. This is, in its way, a remarkable achievement, turning us toward other nooks and crannies, alternative understanding of “depth” no longer tied to meaning in a strict sense, but rather the flux of observation. Among ‘00s horror films, it resonates most closely with Greg Mclean’s Wolf Creek from four years earlier: immaculately crafted and essentially perfect in its idiom yet thoroughly arbitrary and finally incalculable, it demands that we confront how little a film can truly show us, and, because of this, how very much. There’s no imaginative key, no hidden solution, no image freighted with symbolic or narrative import, just darkness gesturing toward more darkness to come.

Score: 8/10

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