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Laying the Foundation Stone for a House of Horrors

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Magnet Releasing

The next time you’re idly browsing for new threads in the nearest clothing chain store, don’t underestimate the guy hawking his services for a larger commission check. Because if this were 2005, and you were in a Diesel outlet in Philadelphia, Ti West would be regurgitating his rehearsed two-pairs-for-the-price-of-one sales pitch, yet beneath the spiel would rest the foundation for what will become one of 2009’s best horror films, “The House of the Devil.”

The film stems from the now 29-year-old Mr. West’s post-college, Diesel-paycheck-thriving days. The Delaware native was coming off his ’05 debut “The Roost,” a lo-fi creature feature that was beloved in the horror community but overlooked by the mainstream. For his follow-up, Mr. West had written an early 1980s-set script about a financially-strapped female college student who accepts a babysitting gig at an eccentric couple’s large Victorian home on the night of a lunar eclipse. The simple yet effective name “The House of the Devil” was typed on the opening page, and Mr. West was ready to rock. Unfortunately, the money that he and producer-friend Larry Fessenden (a veteran in the low-budget horror business) thought they had intact fell through, and the project was paused indefinitely.

As a reactionary middle-finger-you toward that disappointment, Mr. West shot the experimental “Trigger Man,” a humble-looking picture about a marksman hiding out in the woods and picking off people for sport. The grainy, dark film cost only $15,000; uneven and overly dull, though, its impact was minimal, far below that of even “The Roost.” Lionsgate saw the potential in Mr. West, hiring the young filmmaker to help the Eli Roth-free sequel “Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever.” The John Waters-inspired gorefest went off without a hitch, until the post-production process brought in suit-and-tie types unhappy with the film that Mr. West had delivered. Rather than sit quietly as his film was altered in the editing room, Mr. West publicly denounced himself from the unseen film. “Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever” has yet to see a release date; plans for straight-to-DVD distribution in 2010 with Mr. West’s name still in the credits are underway.

The aftermath of the “Cabin Fever” drama was, fortunately, the culmination of Mr. West’s original goals. With financial backing secured through the Chicago-based MPI, “The House of the Devil” went into production early last year. Throughout 18 days of shooting in Connecticut, Mr. West accomplished what so many genre filmmakers have tried but failed: he made a throwback to ’80s horror that feels more authentic than tongue-in-cheek. Slap VHS packaging on the film, toss into a mom-and-pop video shop’s bargain bin, and whoever purchased the tape would think they’d uncovered a two-decade-old relic — Technicolor tints; an opening title score that sounds similar to that of 1988’s “Night of the Demons;” familiar horror vets such as Dee Wallace-Stone (“Cujo”) and Tom Noonan (“Manhunter”).

Those vintage elements aside, “The House of the Devil” is ultimately an inconspicuously macabre film anchored in Satanism — not in a kitschy sense, but of the “Rosemary’s Baby” variety, a distinction that the Roman Polanski-admiring Mr. West would no doubt embrace with open arms.

“The House of the Devil” has been available on video on demand since Oct. 1, but its theatrical run begins this Friday. Critic’s Notebook recently spoke with Mr. West about the film. The guy talks a mile a minute, a film head who welcomes lengthy, casual discussions on cinema, as you’ll see.

Q. “The House of the Devil” is one of the strongest American horror films in recent memory. It feels as if horror films coming out in the States never drum up that same kind of excitement. You can definitely feel that you were able to do exactly what you wanted to do with this film.

A. Yeah, I think so much of the stuff here now is either commercial directors or music-video directors who are essentially just mimicking a style, and their films are real stylish but they also feel soulless. So you have this vibe of, like, “Oh, this movie is cool, but I think that’s all it really is.” It’s cool while you’re watching it; but the moment you leave the theater, you couldn’t give a shit.

One of the only recent stateside genre films that doesn’t fall into that category was Frank Darabont’s “The Mist.”

Yeah, yeah. I wasn’t totally in love with it, but it’s a movie, like ... The thing is, if people would just take horror movies seriously and make serious horror movies, that’s all you have to do. But so many people now work with this tongue-in-cheek, “Oh, we’re making a shitty movie, so let’s not worry about it too much.” That’s the mentality that goes into making horror movies, because people treat it like it’s this porn, lowest-common-denominator genre. That’s unfortunate, because then a movie such as “Let the Right One In” comes along — a movie that’s a serious story about two little kids — and everyone’s like, “Oh my God, it’s genius!” And it is great; but it’s like, why aren’t there more movies like that? Why is it so surprising that that movie exists?

Q. It’s sad, really. But, thankfully, “The House of the Devil” does exist. Where did the initial idea come from?

A. I wanted to make a satanic movie, and one that was set in the ’80s because that was the only time that made sense to set a satanic movie in. I had such a fascination growing up with all the satanic-panic cultural phenomenon. So, it was that, paired with the fact that I had just got out of college and had just made [“The Roost”] and I still had a day job, and I was broke. Who knew what was gonna happen? It was just frustrating. I moved to Los Angeles, and it was a bummer. So I was kind of combining being broke and just out of college into this satanic movie. And then I also made about a girl babysitting because I thought that was the most ... I wanted to make the purest horror movie. I wanted the set-up and story to be relatively familiar and relatively classic, but then I wanted to flip everything on its head once you got into it.

Q. So there wasn’t that much need for research when writing this film, since you had a grasp on that subject already?

A. I did do research to familiarize myself with the material; but the movie isn’t really about satanism, so there wasn’t a need for deep satanic-specific research. It’s more about the hysteria that came with the phenomenon where the culture believed that there were these cults roaming around, and they would abduct you and sacrifice you. So it was more about that paranoia. But I did plenty of research, and I feel like I know a decent amount about cults now. But the movie wasn’t specifically about cult specifics.

Q. When you were younger, how did you act out your fascination with satanism?

A. I remember seeing it on “Today” all the time, on Geraldo Rivera and Phil Donahue. I remember these people always having satanic-cult shows, with guests who were satanic cult member; and your parents would tell you, “If you go and play in the park by yourself, a van with no windows is gonna come along, kidnap you and sacrifice you.” It was just weird, all the things that they’d tell you to be afraid of; it was such a bizarre, fantastic thing. It wasn’t as much “Watch out for child molesters,” it was “Watch out for people who’ll sacrifice you.” That was always really bizarre to me.

Q. One interesting aspect of the film’s satanic rituals is the use of the animal’s skull to pour the blood into the main character’s mouth. Was that something that came directly from research?

A. Not really. I did research stuff, but I don’t know if that actually happened. When we were getting ready to design the effects of the movie, one of the first things I said was, “We need a goat-head challis. There has to be a challis, and there has to be a goat’s head, so we should combine them.” The point was to have strong, evocative imagery that represents that stuff, so that way ... I like it being sort of enigmatic, where you don’t fully understand — things come and go, and you don’t fully understand it, but you understand the implication behind it. So that’s kind of what that was. Did satanic cults really tie people down on pentagrams and perform these rituals where they make them drink blood? Eh, not really their modus operandi. But that’s kind of what’s in our brains as what happens; especially in the early ’80s, that’s what people thought was happening. I wanted to replicate the hysteria that people thought existed.

Q. The lead actress, Jocelin Donahue, does a pretty wonderful job. How did you find her?

A. She’s the only person that I actually auditioned. Everyone else in the movie, I have somewhat of a personal relationship with, whereas Jocelin had to audition. I auditioned a bunch of girls, and she came in right in the beginning and I kept bringing her back three or four times to test her endurance, to see how badly she wanted it. But she really understood the movie; and she understood intellectually what the movie was trying to do; and she wasn’t one of the L.A. babe-girl wanting to be in the movie. She had ideas, and she appreciated what it was. She was very smart about it all. It was important for me to have someone who really got what we were doing, and she did.

When I first heard about the movie, every piece of press called it a throwback, or homage, to the ’80s; but then I read an interview of yours where you called it more of a period piece.

Yeah. I don’t take offense to people calling it a homage; I think they do so in a loving way. It’s just that, to me, I just tried to make a serious early ’80s movie and I tried to be as accurate as possible. But because I think that style is so vogue recently — the ’70s and ’80s styles — it seems like it’s always a throwback. Granted, the title sequences are straight out of that time period, and some of the zooms and some of the camera movements are very much from that time period — which is half because, alright, I wanted to do that and I wanted to enjoy and embrace that aesthetic; but then at the same time I wanted it to seem like an authentic ’80s movie. If I were to make a movie back then, I’d want it to have that Technicolor vibe. There are elements that are sort of homage-ish, but for the most part I just took it as, “Look, this is an early-1980s period movie, and let’s be as authentic as possible.”

Most horror films that get the throwback label constantly wink at the audience to the point of becoming incredibly cheesy.

Yeah, yeah. I really hate that, which is why I think I’ve kind of fought the homage criticism a little bit. I don’t like winking to the audience; that’s what bothered me about “Grindhouse,” that’s what bothers me about a lot of these movies. I don’t think it should be this elbow-you-in-the-ribs every couple of minutes and be like, “Hey, you know ... like the old movies!” That makes your whole movie a joke. That was something I would tell to everybody on the movie, “Look, this can never be a joke. We can never have it feel like ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ kitschy ’80s. It’s gotta be real feathered-hair, wood-paneling, denim jeans — just ’80s.” That was very important to me, that it not have a wink feel.

Some of the little details in the film are great, such as those old Coke cups you see in the pizza shop scene.

Well, everyone loves the Coke cups. That was something from the very beginning, from my first conversation with Jade [Healy, the production designer]; I was like, “We need to get the old Coke cups that just say ‘Coke’ on the side.” And it was the first piece of art department stuff that I ever brought up to her. She was like, “Okay, we’ll figure out how to do it;” and then five minutes later she sent me to a link to eBay with like 25 of them for eight bucks.

I was going to say you could probably find them on eBay.

Oh, half the movie was bought on eBay. Actually, in the “Special Thanks,” eBay is at the top of the list, for all the stuff that we used.

Q. As far as ’80s films themselves, what is it about that era of filmmaking that you connect so much with?

A. Well, certainly that was my youth, so there’s some basic nostalgia with that. I don’t think it’s ’80s movies specifically; it’s more case-by-case during that era. But I think everything pre-1990 I have a way closer connection to. There’s a lot of great movies after that; but it’s like, 1990 was really the benchmark year when everything started to turn from movies made by filmmakers to movies made by committees of people. Test screenings became a lot more popular, and the studios relied on test screenings way more than they used to. Music videos became way more popular, so they went toward that style of editing. That style of directing got more popular, and it all sort of made its way into mainstream film, which was mimicking whatever the most commercial elements were. And in the ’80s, there were music videos, but they weren't as fast-cutting and super-stylized.

They weren’t movies that they would test screen and change 15 times based on what someone in the audience said. It was still a business run by people who actually knew how to do it; and I think somewhere in the ’90s that vanished. It’s almost like the stance that the studios take is, “We don’t really know what we’re doing, so we’re gonna get kind of close to it and show it to a bunch of people. And if they tell us they like something different then we’ll change it.” And that’s why so many movies feel soulless, because there’s nobody behind them saying, “We don’t really care that five people didn't like it, because we think they’re wrong and we think the movie is great the way it is.” That kinda went away.

The film has what I’m considering to be one of the best jump shock scenes I’ve experienced in quite some time.

Oh yeah.

You must know what I’m talking about — the “babysitter” line.

Yeah.

How did that scene come to be?

That was where from the first day that I wrote the script, and a lot of people that read the script years ago to give me feedback on it actually didn’t like that — “No, you know, this character should be more in the movie, to build a little more drama.” And I’d always respond with, “You don’t understand; this scene is gonna be the best scene in the movie. Trust me — it will work.” I was always thinking that it was gonna be the most matter-of-fact scene in the movie, and it’s always been really important because that’s the moment where the movie changes into horror. Before that, it’s like “girl getting a job,” and you knew the movie is called “The House of the Devil,” but you’re not quite sure what’s going on; but from that point forward, it’s like, “Oh, we’re in a horror movie.”

Q. It’s a hell of a jolt. I read some writer online refer to you as the “Terrence Malick of horror” due to your patient pacing. What’s the appeal of slower-paced films?

A. It’s just my own sensibilities. Everything nowadays is so fast-paced that this seems, like “Oh my God! The slow burn!” when, really, it’s a 93-minute movie; and a lot people die in it; and there’s a lot of scary parts. It's not that slow. But, in comparison to everything else, it seems, I think, slower. Whether I’m getting credit or blame for it, I think I’m getting more because of the state of things. I’m not trying to make a statement by it; I just like slower movies. I like when movies take their time. I like that you can sit there and you’d never think that part of the movie would ever happen when it does. We’ve become so hip to movies, that we all know when they go in the bathroom they’re gonna open the mirror, and then when they close it there’s gonna be something behind them in the mirror, and we all know that. When she turns around, it’s gonna be there. So we’re always two steps ahead of the filmmaker, and that sucks because then it’s not even a pro-active way to watch a movie. You’re not a participant anymore. You’re just ahead of the movie; and I think that’s just lame, and it takes away the magic of movies.

When people treat movies more seriously, and they pace them like serious movies, and they’re not in a hurry to cut people’s heads off, I think you have more time to relate to the characters, more time to get into the movie’s tone, and more time to be shocked by certain scenes. I’m a firm believer in that. I’m also not the type of person who sees a movie and then has something to do five minutes afterward; I enjoy movies. That just translates into my filmmaking.

Q. What slower-paced movies are your favorites? “Audition” seems like an obvious example.

“Audition” is great. As far as horror movies, I love “The Shining.” I love “Repulsion,” “The Tenant,” “Rosemary’s Baby.” I love “The Exorcist;” “The Exorcist III” is amazing — you know, all of the sort of stock-issue, obvious answers.

Q. How about outside of horror?

If you look at a movie like “The Karate Kid” — the first hour and 10 minutes of “The Karate Kid,” there’s no karate. If you made that movie now, he would have gotten beaten up once, and then he’d be in Philly learning karate within the first 15 minutes of the movie — like, you need to see him beat up six times, you need to see him brought to where he’s at rock bottom; because if you don’t, why would you care? At the end of the movie when he does the crane thing, that’s a very cool karate move. It’s not slow-motion kicking; it’s this weird my-ankle-is-hurt karate jump kick, but you get so pumped when that happens because you’ve watched him get shit on throughout the whole movie. You need that contrast. Whether it’s horror movies or not, contrast is what makes art acceptable and makes stories effective. Without that, you’re just a one-note situation the whole way through, and I don't think that works. I think that's just boring.

Q. Have you been in higher demand yourself now that this film is creating such a strong buzz?

A. Sort of. It doesn’t really work that. I mean, yeah, the fact that people like the movie and it’s doing well makes me more valuable, I suppose. But, nobody is gonna call me and say, “We want you to do ‘Saw VII,’ ” nor do I want to do “Saw VII.” No one is gonna call me and be like, “We want you to remake whatever stock horror movie.” It doesn’t particularly work like that; the way that Hollywood works in my experience is, like, if someone has another satanic movie, or another movie with a house, then I seem like the perfect candidate for that because I just did that. But I’m not so interested in repeating myself. So, it’s like, yeah, there’s definitely interest, but I don't want to repeat myself and I want to do something that interests me. And I like writing my own stuff, so that makes it a little more difficult.

Q. Do you plan on staying more so independent?

A. Well, you know, if there’s an option to do a big studio movie and not have it be, like, made by committee, I would love to do that. I would love to have the access to more money, I would love to have the access to more talent, so I could pay them. So I could get not just famous people, but actors whom I really want to work with. When you have more money, you just have more access to things. It would be great to have a movie that’s released on a crazy amount of screens. But, with that, I don’t want to make just this piece-of-shit movie made by a group of people and there’s no passion behind it. Filmmaking is really personal for me, and it doesn’t interest me to do that."

Understandable.

Doing four horror movies in a row ... See, here’s the thing; this is something that people don’t understand. Doing the scene where someone says “hello,” and then something pops out, isn’t fun because it’s straight technical. It’s not great for the actors because it’s awkward, and they’re performing just the way they have to for timing. And as a director, you’re just working to technically get it right, and then you add all the technical elements. It’s very tedious. Like, shooting the basement scene in “The House of the Devil” was the worst time I’ve ever had shooting a movie, because it was so tedious. Where as, shooting people just hanging out and talking to each other, that’s the most exciting stuff.

There’s one final thing I need to say. People go, “Why are there so many shitty movies?” Because we’re shitty audiences. People always roll their eyes, “Why is there a ‘Saw VI?’ ” Because you dumbasses saw I to V enough times to make it worth making a sixth one. So, when you want more movies like “Let the Right One In” or you want more French movies like “Martyrs,” you gotta go see these films in the theaters. The places where they’re the least supported. The more people that show up in the theater, it makes a statement. It makes a statement that you’re aware of these movies; that you seek out these movies; and that you want more movies like this; and you want to support companies like Magnolia who put out movies like this. And I think people get lazy about that, but it really does matter. If you do that, it will help decrease the studios’ lowest-common-denominator stuff, and it will increase the smarter movies. I’m 100 percent confident that will happen, it’s up to us to make that effort.

Q. Do you see the success of “Paranormal Activity” as a shift in that direction?

A. Well, that’s great because that’s a little independent movie that found success. The only concern I have of that is that because it’s sort of a gimmicky movie, I wonder if Hollywood’s reaction is to be, “Hey, we can put out more smaller movies and risk it because look how good this did?” Or, is it, “We can only do that with video camera/fake-reel movies?” And that’s generally the way they work. They don’t think, “Hey, look ... We took this little $10,000 film and we gave it a shot and it hit big time.” They don’t look at it like that. They go, “This was a ‘Blair Witch’ clone, so we gotta make another ‘Blair Witch’ clone.” And you go, “No, no, no.” It’s not about the style; it’s about the fact that there’s markets for little movies, for different kinds of movies. You don’t have to make the same kinds of movies; you don’t have to make the same things over and over again. But, nobody wants to risk it; if that movie had failed, all of those people would have been fired. So, it’s like, now they’re all heroes, but no one really gives a shit out here [in Hollywood].

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