Ti West, The House Of The Devil
As a genre that’s all about keeping the audience on its toes, the horror movie naturally needs a regular injection of fresh talent, and writer-director Ti West is the latest to give it a shot in the arm. Born in Wilmington, Delaware, in 1980, West spent his adolescence watching as many movies as he could catch on TV or rent from his local video store. Though he made stop motion movies with his G.I. Joe action figures, he didn’t give much serious thought to filmmaking until he decided to make a short film to indicate to colleges that he had more to offer than his grades suggested. He ended up at New York’s School of the Visual Arts studying film production and was introduced by one of his professors, director Kelly Reichardt, to low budget horror filmmaker Larry Fessenden, who became a champion of West’s short films, such as The Wicked (2001). In 2005, Fessenden acted as producer on West’s first feature, The Roost, a 1970s throwback horror about a group of friends on their way to a wedding who get stuck on a creepy farm. West also continued his working relationship with Fessenden and his Glass Eye Pix production company on his sophomore feature, Trigger Man, a low-key, pared down thriller about a hunting trip gone wrong. West’s next directorial effort, Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever, is awaiting release, and he has also just completed the web series Dead and Lonely for IFC.
West’s latest movie, The House of the Devil, is a lovingly made, 80s-set horror movie that further underlines the writer-director’s considerable talent. The plot is simple: impoverished student Sam (Jocelin Donahue), desperately trying to scrape together money to pay the deposit on her new apartment, accepts a babysitting job advertised by the unsettling Mr. Ulman (Tom Noonan). It later transpires that it’s not a child that Sam will be keeping company in the big, old house, and – as ever – things are much more sinister than they initially seem. As in Trigger Man, West’s strategy here is to fashion a film that is normal and even a little mundane in the first half, and then changes gears to become a horror movie for the second half. West’s conceit could easily have come across as gimmicky, however it works extremely effectively because all the time the film’s overtly horrific events are kept at bay, a tension and sense of dread builds organically. The House of the Devil is a fine horror movie but also transcends its genre limitations thanks to the precision and care of West’s less-is-more approach to filmmaking.
Filmmaker spoke to West about rooting his movies in reality, his precise recreation of the 1980s, and why he wishes he’d directed Citizen Kane.
Filmmaker: At the start of the movie, there’s a caption saying that the film is based on true, unexplained events. I’m presuming that’s a little tongue-in-cheek.
West: Preceding that is a statistic that [during the 1980s] 70% of Americans believed in abusive Satantic cults, which is actually an accurate statistic. The “true events” thing has an element of bullshit to it, sure, but the reason it’s there is during this time period there was this cultural phenomenon dubbed “Satanic Panic.” From 1979 to 1983-ish, there was this nationwide obsession with Satanic cults and cultural ritual abuse, perpetuated by a lot of daytime TV like “Geraldo,” which put the fear out there that this really bizarre thing would happen: you’d be kidnapped and sacrificed to the devil. It wasn’t true, but everyone really believed in it, and I always thought that was kind of amazing. Also, a huge tonal part of the film is realism, and almost a real-time element. So when it says “based on true events,” the cultural event was happening in this time period, and a lot of the film is portrayed in a very realistic, mundane way, so it helped accent that. It really worked like a primer for the film: it put you in a different state of mind. It set the tone of “This is serious,” and I wanted to make a serious horror movie. It helps you not to be there to cheer for people being killed and be there to sit down and say, “I’m going to watch something now.”
Filmmaker: Is it a major aspect of your approach to filmmaking that you want people to believe what they’re watching is rooted in reality?
West: It depends, it’s a case by case thing. With The Roost, not at all – that’s a goofy movie – and not Cabin Fever 2 either. So it depends on the movie, but Trigger Man is steeped in realism and House of the Devil has elements of that as well. The contrast in horror movies is what’s most important, the contrast between the really horrific elements and the really mundane other stuff. I think there has to be a strong contrast to make that accessible and make it effective.
Filmmaker: As well as being steeped in realism, this movie is also steeped in the 1980s. Is it more about the films of that period, or your memories of growing up then?
West: I’m an only child and obsessive compulsive. My formative years with pop culture in my youth and when I was most like a sponge was when I was very young, like seven or eight years old. I became very obsessed with pop culture and what was going on around me in television and movies. Being an only child, you tend to obsess over it more because you entertain yourself by it. I had this stuff seeping into my subconscious.
Filmmaker: What kind of stuff got into your subconscious?
West: I have a photographic memory and I kind of take in everything. I can’t remember names for shit, but I can remember all kinds of weird little details. I’ve always been able to perfectly remember what seems to be meaningless stuff to most people, so when it came to this movie I had lists of all the stuff I wanted to be in the movie. Everything from wallpaper to popcorn makers to the Walkman to the kind of TVs. It was important to me that it wasn’t an “homage”; I wanted to make a very accurate period piece. I was like, “If we’re going to do this, let’s do it right.”
Filmmaker: It’s very popular to be ironic about the 80s, but you seem very be affectionate instead.
West: I have very find memories of that time and I have a very old-fashioned sensibility. This story is ultimately a very old-fashioned horror movie story with all the classic tropes, but there’s something about them that’s presented a little bit differently, and that’s what I was interested in. I wanted to take the classic horror movie structure and work within that and just put spins on things and do my own thing stuff in that framework. That’s what was interesting to me.
Filmmaker: House of the Devil is not quite a movie about movies, but it’s clearly the work of a cinephile. For instance, there’s the Frightmare late night horror movie that she watches on TV.
West: Movies are a huge part of my life. And the Frightmare thing was a nod to my first film, The Roost, because that’s the name of the TV station in that. I’m comfortable with ironies in movies, so I like that she’s so scared and she has to listen to her friend’s voicemail that’s stupid and insulting at this point. I like that she’s so scared that she tries to chill out and watch TV and she sees a girl being attacked. All that stuff is funny to me.
Filmmaker: In this and Trigger Man, you really subvert the horror genre by making a normal movie for the first half and a horror movie for the second half.
West: I think it’s a horror movie the whole time, but there’s that’s the moment when we know that all bets are off. I think the whole time it’s spooky and weird and we’re setting up a horror movie, but that’s the moment of no return. Contrast to me is really important, and is what makes art accessible. As far as horror movies, what’s interesting to me are the awkward details. If you see real footage of someone getting killed, it’s not the blood that you remember, it’s the weird way that their face went or how they dropped and something fell out of their hand. It’s that stuff that weeks later you’re still traumatized by. There’s something bizarre and fascinating about that to me. If you had a home invasion and we’re murdered, you were probably just watching YouTube before it. I was on a plane here that was really bumpy and I was watching a movie on my laptop; I was totally entertained, and the next minute it was like, “Oh, my God, I could be dead right now.” What a weird contrast that I wasn’t doing anything grand, I was just sitting and watching. The focus on the reality stuff in contrast to the horrific stuff interests me.
Filmmaker: House of the Devil is much more subtle and understated than most films in its genre, and I found that waiting for so long for the heroine to be in genuine peril actually ramped up the tension in a really effective way.
West: I think it’s subjective because some people might agree with you and some people might say, “This is the most boring movie ever!” But it’s my personal taste. I’m the kind of person who goes to see a movie and doesn’t have some place to be five minutes after it’s over. I’m going to the movie to experience the movie. I like to take my time with things, but I also like movies that are mystery films. This is a horror movie but there’s an element to this that’s about solving a mystery, and I wanted to let that play out. I also wanted to take everyone who’s very familiar with horror movies out of their comfort zone. You go in a room where you think, “Oh, my God, something’s going to happen,” and then she just talks to a fish and leaves. And then she goes into another room – and it’s just a bathroom. You get to the point where you go, “Yeah, I actually don’t know what’s going to happen, and I’m just at the mercy of this person.” I think that that’s effective and I think that’s the way that it should be. I don’t think you should have someone open a mirror and you know when they close it there’s going to be something behind her, and if it’s not there it’s going to be there when she turns around. I don’t want to be smarter than the movie – that sucks! Then it’s not effective anymore.
Filmmaker: You’ve talked about the more mundane aspects of the movie and the challenge of attracting and keeping an audience given that, so how do you feel about the trailer, which sells the movie as a much more conventional horror?
West: I think there’s always a bait-and-switch element to trailers, I think that’s what they are. I cut this trailer with Graham Reznick, the sound designer, and I’m very happy with the trailer for this movie. Usually it’s some company that cuts it and you’re like, “Ugh, this is way off!” I think the bait-and-switch thing is important. I think when you test screen movies, why don’t you just test screen the trailers? Why don’t you find the trailer the majority of people like and use that trailer, as opposed to fucking with the movie? Maybe I do trick you to get you in there, but maybe you end up liking it. Or maybe you knew better and the trailer didn’t fool you, but you wanted to see it anyway.
Filmmaker: Do you feel like if this movie is successful, your next film could be sold more on what it truly is?
West: I hope so. I have this weird renaissance mentality that a few people have. Last year, there’s Let the Right One In which everybody likes but there’s not a lot of crossover potential to that. It’s not like people say, “Yeah, let’s make movies like that!” – the first thing they want to do is remake it. I think that the horror genre has so much potential, yet everyone does the same thing over and over because that seems to be successful. As long as we as a paying public continue to go see shitty movies, the same shitty movies will get made. And that’s just the way it goes.
Filmmaker: Do you have aspirations to work more in the mainstream?Cabin Fever 2 was obviously an attempt at that…
West: And you’re aware of the situation on that. Yeah, that was an attempt that didn’t really pan out. I’d like to be able to work with bigger actors and have the money to be able to pay them. If I go make some mainstream movie, it won’t be like House of the Devil and there won’t be scenes of people walking in and out of shot, because it’s a mainstream audience and I’m not trying to make things difficult. It doesn’t necessarily have to be as challenging as Trigger Man. I’m not so naive as to go say, “There’s going to be an hour of no talking while they’re hunting…” – I understand that that’s for art house crowds. But films are personal for me and I have very clear ideas of how I want those films to be, so if I go make some big Hollywood movie, as it seems likely may happen, I want to try and maintain that credibility of making it challenging and have that auteur vibe where it better and a little more interesting than most fare.
Filmmaker: What’s the worst (or weirdest) job you’ve ever had?
West: A dishwasher, that was the worst. I was in a restaurant washing dishes – it sucked. I did it for like six months, longer than I wanted to, but then I got upgraded to cook for a while. That was OK, but it was still also kind of a bummer. And any job working in an office. I can’t work at a desk, I’m not cut out for it.
Filmmaker: What was your cinematic epiphany?
West: The movies that made me love cinema were The Karate Kid and Back to the Future, and as far as making me want to be a filmmaker it would be maybe The Evil Dead or Bad Taste, one of these movies where I said, “This seems possible.” The time that I really warmed up to movies was when I had more of an interest in potentially making movies. Then I saw these people making movies that I really liked and I’d say, “Oh, I could see how this was done.”
Filmmaker: If you could hand out an Oscar to someone who’s never won, who would you give it to?
West: Did Kubrick ever win one? I’d give one to him. And what about Peter Medak? I think The Changeling is really pretty great.
Filmmaker: Finally, which film do you wish you had directed?
West: The movie that I’ve seen in the last year that I would say is really great was Two Lovers. I really liked that movie a lot and was like, “James Gray, good job on that!” I think Let the Right One In is pretty great also. …I should have said Citizen Kane. If I’d directed that movie, I’d be like, “Hey now!”