4.07.2013

The old, dark house


Tapping into one of the horror genre's oldest scenarios: The Girl and The House.

Ti West’s The House of the Devil (2009) is a welcome relief from those recent horror movies that either try to scare audiences by piling on the gore (as in the Saw films) or else try to win them over by affecting a tongue-in-cheek cleverness (as in the recent Cabin in the Woods).  While House of the Devil evokes the style of late ’70s/early ’80s horror, mainly in its opening title sequence, it’s not interested in pastiche, nor does it rely on gimmicks or snark.  All it wants to do its scare the hell out of you.  It succeeds, largely because it returns to one of the most reliable of horror-story scenarios: that of The Girl and The House.  West doesn’t inflate it with a lot of complicated backstory, plot twists, or extraneous characters.  He simply arranges a series of familiar but reliable scares, much as a jazz musician covers a book of standards.  Because he covers them well, The House of the Devil ends up feeling fresh rather than tired or cliché.  It inspires us to recognize the conventions of the horror genre and to re-appreciate them—as opposed to mocking them or attempting to spin elaborate and supercilious theories around them, as The Cabin in the Woods does.

The Girl and the House: we think of Eleanor and Hill House in The Haunting, the governess and Bly House in The Turn of the Screw/The Innocents, Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween, Carol Kane in When a Stranger Calls.  Here, The Girl is a pretty college sophomore (Jocelin Donahue) who answers a job posting for a babysitting gig on the night of a lunar eclipse.  The House is a rambling old Victorian somewhere out in the woods, where the homeowner’s elderly mother may or may not be confined to an upstairs bedroom.  A good percentage of The House of the Devil—maybe seven or so minutes too many—is devoted to the babysitter’s trepidatious exploration of its rooms, its closets, and, finally, its attic.  Perhaps the earliest Girl and the House story is that of Bluebeard’s wife, who, as soon as her husband left her alone, went poking around in rooms she should not have entered and found things she should not have done.  (Cf. the titles of so many horror movies, most of them duds: Don’t Open the DoorDon’t Go Into the House!  Etc.)  Again, we find ourselves faced with the question of epistemology.  To map a space—to look into its hidden rooms, its dark corners—is, theoretically, to understand and to master it.  But where the most literal-minded (and boring) of horror stories suggest that such mastery is possible, more effectively terrifying horror stories present us with Houses that ultimately thwart the attempts of Girls, or anyone else, to understand them.  

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