With mainstream horror now defined by cruddy PG-13 originals and even cruddier remakes, Ti West’s “The House of the Devil” couldn’t have arrived at a better time. An unpredictable saga of teenage boredom and Satanic cults in which a college student makes the mistake of taking a babysitting gig at Tom Noonan’s titular residence, West’s third film (after “The Roost” and “Trigger Man”) assumes the guise of an ’80s genre flick — from its title credits to its hair styles — without ever treating those trappings as jokes. More faux-relic than cheeky homage, the film confirms West’s status as a distinctive indie auteur, with his preference for long, languorous takes and his sincere interest in human behavior lending his horror show a uniquely ominous chill. While in Manhattan, he sat down with me to discuss the sorry state of contemporary horror, his unpleasant experiences making the still-unreleased “Cabin Fever 2” and the insanity of test screenings.
Given how many lousy horror remakes have come out lately, did you have any concerns about making such a deliberate ’80s throwback?
No. Now that you say it, I can understand maybe being more concerned than I was at the time. I came up with the idea back in 2005. Right now, would I be doing it? Probably not. But as much as I get credit for it being an homage, that wasn’t really my plan as much as it was a period piece. Not to say there aren’t freeze frames, or the copyright image under the title, or zooms and things like that. But when I put everyone in the period setting, that’s just what happened. As I started fooling with it, it just became clear that this style looked best for the movie. I tried to be authentic to the period. It just happens that this ’70s-’80s retro thing is in vogue. It’s a happy, or unhappy, accident, depending on how you look at it.
Your use of drawn-out character-building scenes and general avoidance of jolt scares, gore and T&A seemed to me like a rebuke to modern horror. Was that what you were going for?
No, there was nothing reactionary. It’s partially my style, it’s old fashioned, and this movie has a classic three-act horror structure. It wasn’t because there are movies like “Saw,” and I wanted to throw it in their face and go the other way. I just don’t particularly like those kind of movies, and I don’t make them. And maybe right now, there are so many bad movies out there that it helps highlight something different.
Did you feel any pressure from outside voices to conform to modern genre conventions?
No, thankfully not. There was a situation right before the premiere at Tribeca where outside forces got involved and said that it’d be more successful if it were a little shorter in the middle. I think there were just some cold feet: “We like this movie, but whew, we hope we’re not the only people who like it.” And I felt like, no, no, it’s going to be fine. But other than that one spat, everyone was very supportive and understood the movie we made. Probably partially due to my complaints, Magnolia swooped in and everyone agreed to revert the film back to the way it was. Other than that, it was easy.
The sequence in question is the one where Donahue’s protagonist dances around the mansion, right?
Before that. There’s a three-and-a-half-minute minute chunk where she explores the house. For me, it was important because she plays the straight character throughout much of the movie, and that’s kind of a bummer for an actor, because she doesn’t get to be as behavioral as some of the other people. So there’s this section where she could wander the house, snoop through their drawers, all these things that gave away tiny foreshadowing plot elements. And you see her play “Heart and Soul” on the piano, these lighthearted moments where the character didn’t have any responsibility except to be herself.
That’s part of the reason I made the movie — the weird things you start doing when you’re alone in someone’s house, like snooping through drawers. And part of its style is to fool people with all the conventions. So, she walks into a room and you think, “Oh my god, something’s going to jump out!”, and then she talks to a fish and leaves. It takes you out of your comfort zone. I wanted to make everyone who knows horror movies go, “I don’t know where the next thing’s coming from.” Jump scares are cheesy, but I think the few of them in the movie are very successful because they’re spaced out appropriately and they come out of nowhere. You get kind of entranced by the lulling style, so that when something extreme happens, it’s more effective. That contrast is really important to me.
That contrast seems particularly important to “HoTD,” considering that modern horror films telegraph everything.
[With today’s horror films], there’s never a moment where nothing’s happening, so it gets to be almost like porn, just one money shot after another. And you begin to feel like, if there was just some story present, I’d be more inclined to give a shit. That contrast is what makes any art accessible.
I’ve seen a lot of dead people. I’m not a good person to hang out with, because people have died on the subway with me. I’ve been on a train that hit someone. One time I was at a horse gambling establishment and the guy a couple seats down just died. And what always amazed me was, everyone’s there betting on horses, having a great time, and no one knew. Once we realized what had happened, the whole tone shifted. If you were the girl in “HoTD” who got involved in a Satanic plot, before it happened you were just hanging out, doing your homework. Whenever you see real death or real horror, it’s not cinematic in any way. It’s clumsy and awkward, and that’s what you wind up feeling jarred by, because it’s not what you were expecting.