There are three types of horror movies. I know, I know, but indulge me as I simplify. There is the purely formulaic horror movie: The one that starts with the unimportant people being killed in the first ten minutes in order to introduce our killer. Then there is the meta horror movie: That’s the one that acknowledges the aforementioned formula but then turns it on its ear while nodding to the audience. Finally there is the realistic horror movie: You know, the one where they spend a lot of time with the characters until something horrific just manages to pop up. Simplifications and broad stokes aside, this breakdown of horror mostly stands true. That general horror paradigm is what made The House of the Devil, this week’s Netflix pick, such an anomaly. In 2009, Ti West, writer and director of The House of the Devil, managed to make one movie that could arguably fit all three of these types. The House of the Devil.
The House of the Devil follows Samantha(Jocelin Donahue) as she tries to find the money to escape her dorm room, and her roommate, and procure her own apartment. This leads to an ominous babysitting job that may or may not be devil related. That synopsis speaks to the formulaic portion of the film. We meet a young, innocent, nubile girl who is preyed upon by dark forces. Her fate depends on how she reacts to temptation, in this case the promise of money. It’s the horror as morality tale formula, perhaps the most popular of them all, and Ti West respectfully follows it. From the “bad girl” friend, to the inevitable ethical choice, Ti West is careful to hit every beat of this type of horror film.
While this faithful formulaic story unfolds, the style Ti West decided to shoot in shifts The House of the Devil into the second type of horror film, the meta horror. The House of the Devil is shot in the style of one of those 1980’s horror films. You know, the ones that sat at the local video store, tempting you with their tawdry VHS covers. With the uncanny 80’s visual style that Ti West creates, or recreates depending on how you look at it, the film excises itself from its strict formula and examines the style of themes of that particular type of horror film.
So we’ve established that The House of the Devil is a faithful, formulaic story that manages to examine its own formula and style. What about that third type of horror film, the realistic, character based horror movie, you ask? For that aspect, Ti West made the choice to create a world of “slow burn”. The first portion of the film is all based in reality. We follow Samantha as she looks at an apartment, goes back to her dorm, gets pizza with a friend, walks around campus, and then repeats. Traditional horror sequences are almost completely limited to the third act. This story choice leads to a film that allows the audience to really get to know our protagonist and her world. By the time the horror manages to pop up we know Samantha and legitimately care for her. This makes the horror all the more effective.
The House of the Devil took the critical world by storm and launched Ti West’s career. He managed to not only make a quality horror film, but also created a multilayered examination of horror and all of its archetypes. That skill and attention to detail, all while making a damn fine surface level horror movie, is what makes The House of the Devil, and Ti West’s films in general, so interesting to watch. For every critic somewhere that thinks that horror films can be easily classified, filmmakers like Ti West giggle a bit and say “watch this”. So yeah, watch this.