15 March 2012

The House Of the Devil - Restoring my faith in horror

Modern horror regularly leaves me feeling disappointed. There, I said it! It’s out in public now. Ten years ago I never thought I would have to admit that fact, but alas it's now so and it really does sadden me. I used to regularly proclaim that horror was my favourite genre of film, and I used to get excited at the prospect of watching whatever new horror film was out – no matter what it was, I was there. I went through every horror fans rite of passage by trying to watch as many of the video nasties as possible, as well as ensuring I was properly acquainted with the classics. But now that excitement has dissipated, and the prospect of watching any new horror film mostly brings on a feeling of dread – not out of concern over what my eyes might see on screen, but that I might be stuck watching another rubbish film that doesn’t even remotely understand the concept of terror… or horror for that matter.

The big allure of horror was the challenge of trying to get a reaction out of myself. If a film could raise a chill or actively disgust me then it was effective and I was happy that I’d watched it, regardless of its quality. But by watching many of these films a heightened state of desensitisation develops, so you can be left sitting there impassive whilst all around you are jumping out of their skins or desperately shielding their eyes from the repugnance on screen. After all these years I’m still uncertain whether or not that’s a good state to be in, but it certainly makes you a more demanding viewer. One culmination of all this is that the desire to ‘challenge myself’ is gone, which is perhaps a result of age, and I find myself choosing more carefully what from the genre I do actually want to watch, caring more about quality.  

Except I rarely seem to find that quality anymore. Too many recent films seem to stick to basic genre tropes without doing anything creative or interesting, or they’re just remakes of classics. So what’s the point? Then there’s the recent influx of ‘torture porn’ films, or those that revel in acute prolonged violence against others without reason, which I can't watch without feeling like my soul is being sucked into a blackened void of nihilism. That’s no fun. I blame Hostel for this trend, which was one half shoddy soft Euro porn, and the other half sheer pointless bleakness. The Saw movies, which also seem to get a lot of blame for this, at least had an interesting albeit twisted logic as to why people were put into such horrific situations, and were even encouraged to make it out alive. I’ve never wanted to watch the Hostel sequels, but I at least stuck with the Saw series until the extremely disappointing end. There’s also been a pervasiveness of CGI across all films in recent years, but in horror films, and particularly monster movies, there’s something about it which can end up not looking quite right. You become more acutely aware that what you’re watching is fake, which can really deaden the impact. For example, I’d defy anyone who thinks the digital effects work in the 2011 The Thing prequel is more creepily effective than the practical effects employed in the 1982 The Thing

Fortunately the thrill isn’t totally gone. There are two recent horror films that have impressed me enough that I would consider them not only the two best horror films of the last decade, but also classics of the genre. They avoid the pitfalls mentioned above and show either a total understanding of the genre or the ingenuity to try and succeed at something new and fresh. The first is [rec], the Spanish zombie-esque movie from 2007 directed by Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza, which took the found footage concept to new levels of effectiveness. A TV reporter and her cameraman are locked in a quarantined apartment block with the residents, who are slowly becoming infected with a virus that is turning them into deranged zombie like killers. The whole film is seen from the perspective of what they’re shooting – it’s visceral, it’s raw, it’s so goddamn intense. This style makes you feel like you are actually there in a way that shooting on traditional cameras could not replicate, and being set in an unnamed Spanish city strangely gives it even more authenticity. The final 10 minutes of the film are jaw dropping and completely terrifying. [rec] is the epitome of how creative and ingenious horror can be, but it’s not the story that’s driving this, it’s the style, the technical skill and a genuine understanding of how this can enhance the story. I left the cinema in awe.

It was some time before I saw another horror film that got close to matching my thoughts on [rec], and that was The House Of the Devil. This fantastic 2009 film from writer, director, editor Ti West uses another classic genre staple as its story – the babysitter in peril. Sam (Jocelin Donahue) is a college student who desperately needs money so takes on a babysitting job where inevitably things are not as they seem. 

Let’s start at the beginning here. If you want the audience to actually root for the lead whilst they are in a pretty crazy situation then character motivation is key. Too often in horror the lead ends up making stupid or questionable decisions and there is no real character motivation established, they are just being hunted and happen to be fighting for survival, so you end up struggling to care about them. So what is the motivation here? Sam hates living in her college dorm, has just agreed to rent a nice house she can't afford and has only a few days to come up with the first month’s rent. She spots an advert for a babysitter and calls up to find out more - it pays well but in the process of ensuring she is the right babysitter is messed around a bit. Through this her character doesn’t come across like a fool so we’re on her side and totally sympathise with the money woes. This is backed up by Sam’s friend Megan (Greta Gerwig), who is a voice of reason as well as her ride to the house which is on the remote fringes of town. Megan suspects something suspicious due to the messing around and wants to make sure everything is fine. She’s kind of right. The Ulman’s (Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov), who placed the ad, don’t have a kid that needs looking after, rather an elderly mother who is ensconced in the top room of the house and they want Sam there just in case. The rationale for this lie makes sense, Sam manages to negotiate considerably more money and Megan leaves angry with her friend for agreeing to stay. Thus the scene is set.

Patience is the key to the effectiveness of The House Of the Devil. That and a brilliant understanding of how to build tension. It’s at least half an hour before Sam is left ‘alone’ in the house and in this time nothing happens other than a slow deliberate development of the story. These days it seems uncommon for a horror film to start without a prologue featuring some violent shocking event to immediately satiate the audience, yet that’s completely eschewed here in favour of starting things gradually, leaving you wondering what it’s going to build too. Think how well that approach works in a film like The Exorcist, very slowly establishing themes and characters firstly in Iraq, and then in Washington DC. Once we meet The Ulman’s it brings out even greater levels of uncertainty. They look faintly sinister yet are genial, even slightly bumbling in the case of Mr Ulman. They retain an air of mystery about them, but there’s not enough for us to really be sure that we should be worried about them, so it seems to make sense that Sam isn’t too overly concerned about being in this house alone. Yet we the audience still think something is not quite right, and as Sam explores the house we’re on edge about what the hell could be lying behind every door or in every darkened corner.  

Cleverly the first shock happens away from the house. This gives the audience its first taste of what’s really going on, helps increase the tension of the scenes in the house, but crucially allows us to remain on Sam’s side and not question her unperturbed attitude as she can’t have known what’s just happened. With this event in the back of our minds the tension is just layered and layered on over the next thirty minutes. In this time Sam’s suspicions start to develop in a logical manner, but more importantly there is absolute restraint with regard to providing scares or even release for the audience.

So much horror relies on cheap scares these days. You know the type that’s signposted a mile off because nothing’s happened for a few minutes, and the way the shot is framed means you can almost predict exactly what’s going to happen, whilst there's a reliance on using a very loud blast of music to make you jump. I find that so uncreative, especially when used repetitiously throughout. In over an hour of film The House Of the Devil makes very minimal use of jumps and those that do occur are not obviously signposted, don’t cheat by using loud crashing music and are implemented in such a way that appreciates that a little bit of tension needs to be relieved, but not at the expense of ruining the overall mood. Controlling events like this just keeps everything slightly uncertain, avoiding the predictability trap. 

On the point of music, I love how it has been implemented in The House Of the Devil. There is a quiet, brooding motif that plays throughout most of the film, which is faintly unnerving and certainly contributes to the mounting tension. But this builds into something more darkly dramatic once it’s revealed what is actually going on. In addition there are a couple of good uses of 80s style pop music that provide a little bit of balance. That’s the other point I haven’t mentioned – the film is set in the early 1980s and this aesthetic is carried through completely, from the graining of the picture to the styling of the credits and the title card, so that you’d believe you’re watching a lost relic from that era. I think this gives the film an interesting hue, hearkening back to an empowered time in the genre, but it also serves the story well, giving it a certain isolation that this space and time can offer. 

Thus far I’ve intentionally kept things quite spoiler free, but if you’ve not seen the film I’d recommend not reading this next paragraph to avoid spoilers (everything is best watched without spoilers!). 

The danger for a film that has been so consistent in building up to something dreadful is that it might end up in a limp anticlimax. Fortunately that’s not the case with The House Of the Devil. The big reveal is that the Ulman’s are Satanists and they want Sam to be a surrogate for the dark lord or his maleficient offspring, which has to happen that night due to the eclipse at midnight that's been alluded too throughout the film. This might seem to be a fairly rote denouement for a horror story, but it holds power and is creepily done. We finally meet the elderly mother who has been in the house all along and she looks horrific in a deformed, demonic way. We keep seeing very short rapid cuts of her evil face interspersed as Sam is suffering, and it’s chilling. The rest of what happens plays out with a lot of blood, ritual and violence. My only two complaints with the film come in this section – firstly that it feels too short after the long build up, and secondly that Sam escapes far too easily and with very little resistance from the Ulman’s, making them appear to be the worst kidnappers in the world. However, perhaps they just believed that they would be successful due to the power that compels them? And perhaps this section works better shorter so it doesn’t feel drawn out and leaves an impact? 

I will be up front here and say that I have a thing for Satanic themed horror movies. Although there are no religious reasons for this, I think there’s an elemental terror that comes from what is signified and implied by the power of the devil, all entwined with the disturbing and macabre iconography that usually accompanies it. There’s just something about this that reaches deeper into humanity’s core, reflective of our ruinous and self destructive nature, and how we can all be easily led down this path. It's a root terror buried in our psychology that is very difficult to escape from, and it’s this psychological aspect that means it holds power when transposed onto film. Slasher or monster movies may be scary in their own right, but really just offer a visceral thrill. Zombie films may be adept at providing a social comment and imagining mankind’s dystopia through a gore ravaged miasma, but this just leads to a bleak despair. None of these chill quite as deeply as a film about Satanic compulsions controlling people.

The House Of the Devil is a fantastic film because it completely understands what’s required of it to make it work. The ability to build tension and control it is second to none; where this leads and how the film ends is chilling; the lead is likeable, sympathetic and not a stupid character like so many in the genre; any violence is wince inducing but over quickly making it incredibly impactful; music is used to enhance what’s on screen, not overpower it; fitting into a specific time and place gives the film character, personality and thus more power; the viewer is treated with respect and intelligence and the film doesn’t slavishly bow to modern conventions by doing something shocking every few minutes to satiate an audience lacking an attention span. As such I can’t recommend The House Of the Devil enough to anyone who has even a passing interest in horror. It restores faith in the genre and makes us horror fans feel like we’re loved, rather than being prepared to lap up any old generic shit. The same applies to [rec] of course.

It’ll be interesting to see where the genre goes over the next few years. Will I still be feeling the same way in five years time, or will I be even more disenfranchised as studios threaten to re-reboot Halloween and A Nightmare On Elm Street, and The Human Millipede cynically stitches all of humanity together? Who’s to say. As long as there are filmmakers out there prepared to respect the audience, understand what horror is and who remember that we’re not all idiots, then it should be ok. And if all else fails, we have a wealth of classics to fall back on! 

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