As far as personal histories with a film go, Ti West’s The House of the Devil is one of the more transformative and memorable of mine. I first watched the film one night after hearing some chatter about it on the internet, and to be honest I didn’t really like it too much the first viewing. I found it to be quite boring save for the last 15 minutes that descended into truly nightmarish horror. Months went by, but I still couldn’t stop thinking about that film, so I rewatched it with a friend, and so begin my road to understanding how brilliant it is. A few years later it’s one of my favorite horror films (I even presented a paper on it at a conference), I rewatch it every Halloween.
The House of the Devil is the most singularly Ti West film of Ti West’s filmography in that everything that Ti West does that sets him apart from other modern horror filmmakers really started to shine in this film. Another way to explain myself is to compare this film to Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets. Yes, completely different films, but both represent similar points in each director’s filmography. Both aren’t the best films in either’s filmography (I’ve heard arguments for The Innkeepers as West’s best, and they might be right), but both films represent when the director really came into their own.
To keep in line with my analogy, you saw examinations of masculinity and characters who lead a life of low-level crime – all things that had existed to certain degree in his previous films – really come to a fully-realized and owned growth in Mean Streets. In Ti West’s case, it was his trademark slow burn pacing by subverting audience expectations and by extension his overall postmodern lens.
Ti West has always made films with the knowledge that there’s an audience engaging with it, and that the audience seeking out his films is one that has at least a base level of familiarity with the horror genre. This existed in all his films previous to The House of the Devil, but didn’t get pulled off with the same finesse that The House of the Devil was made with.
West’s films have become synonymous with the term “slow burn”, but that’s putting it too simply. What’s more important is the ways it burns slowly. It only feels slow because West is deliberately side-stepping moments of jump scares and tension releases to subvert what the audience is expecting. This tactic was present in his first film The Roost as well as his followup Trigger Man. (Disclosure: We won’t be counting Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever as West has disowned it, and rightfully so.) The Roost is forgivably bad (hey man, we all gotta start somewhere) because this film does show that West was on his way and knew what he wanted to achieve. The film avoided jump scares until the last act, when all hell broke loose in a creature-feature throwback. It’s not handled as tactfully as he would in future films, but he was on his way.
Trigger Man stands as an outlier among West’s films, as it isn’t really a horror film, but a tightly bound thriller. It’s not adopting the framework of any horror subgenre either like his other films do. But in West fashion, he utilizes the same techniques to amp up the tension throughout the film until it boils over in the last 15 minutes. He deliberately avoids any jump scares so by the time you get to the last act, the tension of it all has taken hold.
Going chronologically like we have we now come to his 2009 masterpiece The House of the Devil. What strikes you first about the movie is its look. It’s shot like it was made in the 80s. So convincingly too, that one time I showed the film to a friend and he thought he was watching a movie that was made back then until I told him otherwise. Everything about the film from the cinematography, the score and the acting evokes a cinematic time period long gone by. What does this produce in the audience? It brings them to think back to the horror films that came out back then, and subliminally invites them to bring their knowledge and expectations regarding those films. What West does is then play a chess game with the audience, subtly subverting their expectations.
Going back to my initial reaction of boredom to the first 75 minutes of the film, it wasn’t until my second viewing that I realized how much the inactivity of those first 75 minutes contributed to the unforgettable effect that the 15-minute climax had. The reason why it felt boring the first time was because West was deliberately avoiding any opportunity for a scare I was expecting. Consider the scene where Samantha leans near a door, suspecting something might be on the other side, then leaves. West then cuts into the room to show a grisly shot of the former owners of the house lying dead with various demonic cuts in them. West is teasing a moment that would have happened in just about every other modern horror film. Rather than having an effect that proves unengaging, the fact that he deters from any traditional jump scares actually quietly amps up the tension for the audience. He’s essentially holding fire until the final act, then unleashing all the guns to a horrifying effect.
Ti West is one of the only modern horror filmmakers that doesn’t rely on cheap jump scares. There is only one true jump scare in The House of the Devil, but it works wonderfully because you don’t see it coming. The scene begins when Samantha’s friend Megan pulls off the road into a graveyard to have a smoke by herself. Suddenly a guy pops up to offer a light. She jumps, and so do we. The immediate feeling of chuckling at yourself after a jump scare for relief sets in. Then just a few moments later he pulls out a pistol and blows her brains out. You jump, and you really didn’t expect that to happen. West basically distracted you with one hand so he could slap you with the other.
West would go onto apply the same slow-burn technique through audience subversion in his V/H/S segment, as well as his films The Innkeepers and The Sacrament. V/H/S and The Sacrament playing with the found-footage and faux-documentary genre and The Innkeepers adopting the tropes of a haunted location film with a millennial lens. 5 years later, The House of the Devil may not be West’s greatest film, but it is his most self-definitive film. The House of the Devil is the perfect intro into West’s filmography, as it introduces you to his auteuristic touches. It’s the gateway drug. To understand and appreciate this film is to understand and appreciate what West does throughout his films that is so special.