Movie Discussion: Ti West’s The House of the Devil (2009)

  • Monthly Theme: Indie Horrorhouse_of_the_devil
  • The Film: The House of the Devil
  • Country of origin: U.S.A.
  • Date of U.S. release: October 30, 2009
  • Studio: MPI Media Group, et al.
  • Distributer: Magnet Releasing
  • Domestic Gross: $101,000
  • Budget: ?
  • Director: Ti West
  • Producers: Larry Fessenden, Badie Ali, et al.
  • Screenwriter: Ti West
  • Adaptation? No.
  • Cinematographer: Eliot Rockett
  • Make-Up/FX: Ozzy Alvarez, Christian Beckman, et al.
  • Music: Jeff Grace
  • Part of a series? No.
  • Remakes? No.
  • Genre Icons in the cast? Yes. Cult film star Mary Woronov (Eating Raoul, Silent Night Bloody Night, etc.). Genre star Tom Noonan (Manhunter, Wolfen, etc.). Indie horror icon A.J. Bowen (A Horrible Way to Die, The Signal, etc.). Scream queen Dee Wallace (Cujo, The Howling, etc.).
  • Other notables?: Yes. Mumblecore icon Greta Gerwig. TV star Lena Dunham.
  • Awards?: Best Feature at the 2009 Birmingham Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival. Best Actress [Jocelin Donahue] and Best Score at the 2009 Screamfest.
  • Tagline: “Talk on the phone. Finish your homework. Watch TV. DIE.”
  • The Lowdown: The House of the Devil was actually the second movie Kristine and I watched for horror movie club, way back in the days before our blog existed. We chose to revisit the movie now because it fit this month’s theme and because it stands in our memories as one of our favorites. The movie is something of a tour-de-force for director West, who made the film coming off a terrible experience making the sequel Cabin Fever 2 (the producers took over the editing process of the movie and West asked to have his name taken off the project – they refused). The House of the Devil has a very limited scope and scale, taking place almost entirely within the titular house as Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) spends her long, uneasy night of housesitting. Also starring mumblecore stalwart Greta Gerwig and cult/horror movie legends Dee Wallace, Mary Woronov, and Tom Noonan, the movie put West on the map by becoming something of a critical darling, provoking a lot of praise for its reliance on atmospherics over gore (though there’s actually a fair amount of gore in the movie).

If you haven’t seen The House of the Devil our discussion will include massive SPOILERS. 

Sean: So I want to state upfront that I am carrying a lot of baggage into this discussion that I didn’t have back when we first watched The House of the Devil.

Kristine: Why is that?

Sean: I am… suspicious and uncertain about how I feel about the director, Ti West, based on things he’s done since this movie. Mostly he participated in an anthology horror movie that is staggeringly misogynistic.

Kristine: I haven’t seen anything else he has done, so I am pure, not tainted like you. Which anthology movie is that?

Sean: V/H/S.

Screen Shot 2013-04-07 at 11.33.21 AM
Domestic spaces are Gothic lady-prisons, get it?

Kristine: See, I heard that was good. It’s misogynistic?? Explain.

Sean: I mean, you need to just see it to believe it. But every story is like, “Women are disgusting monsters. Bye!” Literally all five of the stories in the movie. It made me ill.

Kristine: Jesus Christ.

Sean: But anyway. Can we start this discussion off in an unconventional way?

Kristine: Sure.

Sean: So there is an epigraph before The House of the Devil that reads: “During the 1980s over 70% of American adults believed in the existence of abusive Satanic Cults… Another 30% rationalized the lack of evidence due to government cover ups… The following is based on true unexplained events…” Since we are both children of the 1980s, I was wondering if you have memories of Satanic panic.

Kristine: Well, you have to keep in mind that I didn’t spend all of my childhood in the United States – only ages 6-10, and then again at age 14. But even still, I remember thinking that children being abducted and enduring ritual sexual abuse was like, the most common fate that could be visited upon someone. What I don’t specifically recall is associating this evil with Satanic cults. You?

Sean: Oh god totally. I grew up in central Connecticut, a heavily forested region, and it was a big part of local folklore that “Satanists” or “cults” did… things in the woods. I remember being afraid of the woods as a young kid and then, later, around 12 or so, hoping every walk into the woods would end with me discovering some secret site of Satanic worship. But the idea was that you could be kidnapped by cults.

Kristine: I was going to ask if you were scared or titillated.

Sean: Even more than that I remember kids at school talking about Satanists doing horrible things to people’s pets. Kidnapping dogs and cats and sacrificing them.

Kristine: Yes, I remember that, but not until I was high school age. If you did discover a secret site of Satanic worship back then would you have a) asked to participate, b) lurked in the bushes and watched everything or c) intervened and tried to stop it?

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Behind the scenes at CPAC

Sean: Well, when I said I always hoped I’d find a site of Satanic rituals, I meant during the day when no one else was there. I meant like, evidence of Satanists, not Satanists themselves. Like, bloody pentagrams and dead animals and partially melted black candles.

Kristine: Oh, I see. And Blair Witch-style craft projects hanging from the trees.

Sean: I guess. But my friend Jim and I did used to go deep into the woods in the middle of the night when we were 14 or so, and if we’d found a black mass or something in progress I definitely would have wanted to watch from afar unless, like I said, they were going to hurt a puppy. Then I would have yelled at them to stop and ran like a coward. This is all linked in my mind with the late ’70s/early 1980s associations of Satanism with three things: Dungeons & Dragons, heavy metal and horror movies. I remember being really young – like 6 or 7 – and an older boy telling me about some kids who accidentally conjured a demon by playing Dungeons & Dragons.

Kristine: Dungeons & Dragons opening a portal to hell. They wish.

Sean: Right?

Kristine: That is hilarious. I am dying.

Sean: It was a spellbinding story to a 6 year-old nerdling like myself.

Kristine: I can’t believe this never occurred to me, but I’m sure fundamentalist Christians do believe Dungeons & Dragons is Satanic.

Sean: Of course they do. And heavy metal. And horror movies, like I said. Those are the three things.

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Hipster beards can be hazardous to your health

Kristine: I wonder if it’s fun to see Satan in, like 80% of life. It certainly would be exciting. You would be in a constant state of panic/arousal.

Sean: Have you read about those Norwegian black metal enthusiasts who like, worshipped the Elder Gods and killed each other with battle axes?

Kristine: Yes. It’s always interesting to hear about that stuff, as I am sometimes in a bubble of ignorance, where I feel like the most horrific and random violence only happens in the U.S. and all the Western European countries are these Socialist Utopias. It’s a wake-up call to be reminded that violence, hatred, racism, etc. is a universal human trait. But, yeah, they get crazy in upper Northern Europe, man.

Sean: So, all of this is by way of saying, it is weird that the 1980s were this hotbed of paranoia about Satan. So medieval. I was wondering if it was fallout from a post-Manson Family America…

Kristine: Makes sense with Reagan in office though, right?

Sean: Explain.

Kristine: Meaning, the Reagan years were defined by a cultural fear of harm coming from a distant and/or mysterious, unknown Other. The Russians. Satanists. When, in my opinion, the real legacy of the Reagan presidency for this country was when he slashed mental health services and thousands were forcibly released into the streets to fend for themselves. Living in D.C. was striking, because the homeless were freezing to death on the sidewalk, and all anyone was concerned with was Russia. As far as the Satanism thing goes, it’s a fear that promotes the hetero/nuclear family (with an added fun twist that sometimes the family can be the evil, too), which yes, I do see as fall out from post-Manson Family America. But also from strides made for civil rights in the previous two decades.

Sean: Right on and, in fact, this segues nicely into The House of the Devil because remember that the traditional family (mom, dad, young son) that owns the house has been slaughtered and invaded by a perverse, queer family (the Ulmans, who also consist of a mother-father-son triad).

Kristine: Yes. I made note of that when I re-watched it for our discussion. I think the inclusion of the adult son in the cult is very important, and makes it more effective and chilling than if it had been just this sick twist of a couple.

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They really were asking for it with all their weird lamps

Sean: Right. That pan shot into the bedroom of the little boy dead and stretched out in the bloody pentagram…. I think its also interesting that the cover story they tell Samantha is that Mrs. Ulman’s elderly mother is in that room. The narrative layers always revolve around family and domesticity. The fiction of a third generation masks the reality of the extinction of the “normal” family… It’s just a nice little detail that reinforces the idea that queerness often tells lies in order to disguise itself and that, no matter how far-fetched, if those lies line up with some semblance of “normality” we will choose to believe them. That’s a good way to frame or think about the character of Samantha – that no matter how hard her internal weird-o-meter is pinging off the Ulmans and the house in general, it is so much easier and more natural to choose to believe the convenient lie that masks the “wrongness.” Like, first the lie is that there is a “baby” to sit, then a “mother”… It is clear that something is off, something is not right. The Ulmans have to use cover stories in order to mask their queerness. So you may be right about the Reagan-era cultural politics… Which leads me to wonder why this movie was made in 2009, but we’ll get to that later.

Kristine: Let me ask you this…when you were growing up, was there ever a “not right” family in your neighborhood that people were suspicious of?

Sean: Um, my family.

Kristine: Haha!

Sean: Truth.

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It will take 1-to-2 months for Ms. Rivers’ swelling to go down…

Kristine: I have fallen to the floor. I am in hysterics! Convulsing…

Sean: My father was a madman who would scream and curse at neighbors and pick fights and be a freak. If like, a person walked across our lawn, he would burst out of the house screaming at them.

Kristine: Oh, Sean. You know, this explains a lot.

Sean: What the fuck does that mean?

Kristine: Well, I think you have just illustrated my point more aptly than I ever could. But I was going to say, this explains why, when we are in public together, you are always humiliated when I have an interaction with a waiter or customer service person that lasts longer than 2 seconds. If I ask a question or make any sort of request, you start to die and accuse me of being difficult and weird.

Sean: You’re right, you being weird is all about me.

Kristine: Yep.

Sean: No, but I see your point. My father would be so rude and horrible to service people.

Kristine: Being rude to service people is the worst and I would never. I am not weird. My boyfriend and I have finally gotten to the point where he doesn’t turn around and walk away when I ask the ticket person at the movies their review of what we are about to see. When we first started dating and I would do that (which I often do) I would look up and he would have vanished.

Sean: Back to The House of the Devil….

Kristine: No, let’s talk more about me.

Screen Shot 2013-04-07 at 11.59.31 AM
Glamour dyke goddess

Sean: The perverse, queer, evil family vs. the “normal” family is a big theme. To switch gears slightly, that when I walked out of the theatre, the most resonant aspect of this movie for me were the class politics and the association of decadence, old world glamour, and wealth with perversion and evil.

Kristine: We saw this together at The Loft correct?

Sean: Um….

Kristine: Did we?

Sean: You are like making up life.

Kristine: Well, then, tell me. I can’t remember.

Sean: You are… Inventing the Abbotts.

Kristine: I am not making up. I am asking.

Sean: No, I saw this in the theater with my boyfriend. You and I watched this together at my house after it came out on DVD. I rented it from Casa. It was the second movie we ever watched for horror movie club.

Kristine: This was during my “lost weekend” that lasted 3 years. Yes. Okay, I accept this as truth.

Sean: So… class issues? You know I have class rage. It is a given that I will love any movie that asserts that the wealthy (especially the old money bourgeoisie) are perverse monsters.

Kristine: The class politics of the movie are most apparent because Samantha only takes the “babysitting” job (when she knows something is not right) out of her need for money. I think Mary Woronov does an outstanding job as Mrs. Ulman, personifying that perverse old-school wealth with her gross furs and fixation on sex. And remember, it’s Samantha seeing the closet of fur coats and going to check them out that leads her to discover the family photos of the original home-owners… and to start to put together what has happened. The truth is literally closeted in this movie, which completely justifies a reading in which Satanists=queers/non-normals/non-hetero-mainstreams.

Screen Shot 2013-04-07 at 11.36.55 AM
The Ulman’s queerness has got to be somewhere in here… Let’s see Boggle, Operation, Monopoly, Lite Brite…

Sean: Yes. I think that Ti West is aware of those tropes (because Jesus Christ, if in 2009 filmmakers still aren’t aware of this shit then I am just giving up) and has these Reagan-era cultural politics in mind. I mean, I think this is why he puts the epigraph at the beginning of the film, to purposefully re-frame the movie as both a piece of nostalgia but also letting us know that the underlying neuroses of the Reagan era is exactly what this movie is about. That knowingness makes me all the more depressed about how disgustingly sexist V/H/S is, by the way.

Kristine: I think it is a “rule” that to be a Satanist, you have to have some mysterious and ancient source of wealth, something tied to the Old World. Satanists don’t work and they’re not a part of the first-world economy, right? If you’re poor and you do ritualized killings, you’re just the Sawyers from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Agreed?

Sean: Yeah. You’re also right that Mary Woronov is fucking perfection as the fur-draped, vaguely-predatory-lesbian countess of weirdness. The line of hers that always jumps out at me is “We’re from the desert, you know.” I actually think there’s some subtext in the movie about West vs. East. Remember when one of the rooms has this huge mural of cowboys? And the camera lingers on it? The idea that the perversity and evil comes from the West (the “newer” part of the country) and not from the East is interesting to me, and syncs up to the Manson Family stuff in my mind.

Kristine: Ah, interesting. I hadn’t thought of that but that is a new twist. I like it.

Sean: Do you agree that Mrs. Ulman is sort of hitting on Samantha in that scene?

Kristine: Absolutely, yes, she is hitting on her or at least infusing the scene with sexual possibility/perversion. I thought of Mrs. Ulman as the Countess from Daughters of Darkness, but instead of being preternaturally ageless, she is finally showing her age.

Screen Shot 2013-04-07 at 10.05.55 AM
John Wayne liked dick

Sean: Yes, total Countess Bathory from Daughters of Darkness and also total Miss Giddens (after she’s gone to seed) from The Innocents. But Bathory is so old-world European – and the Ulmans in The House of the Devil are distinctly American. I love your point about the fur coats. And the fur coats vs. the wet hair in the bathtub is a nice link to the primal/bestial. This highly flamboyant bit of costuming from the wealthy becomes synonymous with a base animal’s pelt (or even just the unclean, abject body as represented by the clumps of wet hair in the bathtub). It’s a clever way to link the pagan to the aristocracy.

Kristine: I feel like the coats, and Samantha’s fascination with them, “leads” her to the discovery of the photos, and in doing so really ups the horror. The movie really picks up it’s (initially incredibly slow) pace at that point. Also, the other scene that drives the class point home for me is when Megan keeps asking Mr. Ulman about his profession and he keeps evading her. She’s like, “Are you a professor?”

Sean: I love all his “Not exactly”-ies. Because since we know – look at the title of the movie, yo – that he’s a secret Satanist, we know that there’s a campy double meaning to everything he says. I want to be very clear that I think the title of this movie, which makes the premise crystal clear from the outset of the movie, is absolutely key to how it operates. This movie is engineered and fueled by the audience’s awareness of the danger from minute one. The first time we hear Samantha make a phone call to Mr. Ulman and he is so weird and evasive and creepy on the phone, we know. Samantha doesn’t. That’s how these movies work. But also, this movie has a very knowing sense of humor. When Megan is trying to make Samantha feel better about not getting the babysitting job early in the movie, she says something like, “You’re probably better off! What if the kid is from Hell?”

Kristine: That’s right.

Sean: She also reminds Samantha that she apparently “hates kids,” which is something else that I want to talk about…

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Every person who has ever had to go to some weird house ever

Kristine: Can I say that I loved every minute of Megan’s interaction with Mr. Ulman and with the house in general? The candy bowl scene is one of my favorites. Even though Samantha is the one who needs the money, I think Megan more exemplifies the “working class” personality better – straightforward, outspoken, a tad trashy. I was sad when she was taken out of the movie so early. Do you agree or disagree with my take on Megan?

Sean: Megan is great. Love her. And yeah she’s the gutsy, working-class broad as opposed to the daintier, more prim Samantha. Obviously the movie dispatches Megan so early so that we know that Samantha is stranded there. Again, this movie is absolutely predicated upon the audience using what it knows against what is happening to Samantha.

Kristine: Yes, as soon as Megan is dispatched you know Samantha is a goner. Did Megan’s death shock you?

Sean: Yes, it totally shocked me, but I was not devastated in the Libby-in-Super way. I still wonder if the movie would have been more fun if Megan had showed back up at 12:30 to pick up Samantha and stumbled into the total insanity of the Satanic ritual.

Kristine: Right. I think one way the movie works well is having these quick, sudden moments of horror that disrupt the overall pacing (which is so slow, almost to the point of being tedious). Can I make a comparison that might sound utterly insane? Upon re-watching this movie, I was reminded of…. Polanski’s Repulsion. Have I shocked you?

Sean: No, that makes total sense.

Kristine: Cool. I think it takes a lot of confidence to make a movie with such deliberate, slow pacing (which both films have) and to focus, like, 90% of the time on the lead actress in solitude, interacting with an interior space.

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I love a woman with a patchy, cornsilk head of tufts.

Sean: Yes, and both movies are very adept at turning the setting into a character.

Kristine: Yes, that is full of menace – at first possibly imaginary but then definitely real. Yes.

Sean: Oh, they’re both all about the domestic and the feminine for sure. Actually re-watching The House of the Devil I realized that this movie sort of falls in the same camp as Grindhouse and Machete and Hobo With a Shotgun. This wave of nostalgia-based properties that approach low-budget filmmaking from a big(ger)-budget perspective. And I wondered a lot during my re-watch whether The House of the Devil is just an empty exercise in style or an actual movie (I also want to point out, in terms of this movie’s relationship to the history of horror cinema and the issue of nostalgia, that the first horror movie – an 1896 3-minute short by Georges Méliès – was named Le Manoir du Diable, or roughly translated, “The House of the Devil”). I wonder if any of these “retro” movies are worth very much. Even actual low-budget filmmaking these days tries to ape a  particular B-movie aesthetic that is synonymous with the 1970s and 1980s. Some of Troma’s recent releases fall into this camp, like Blood Junkie and Father’s Day. Even something a bit more arthouse, like Beyond the Black Rainbow, is all about recreating a bygone vibe/style outside of its original context. Are all these movies just the cinematic equivalents of that infamous Hobo-themed Etsy wedding?

Kristine: I’m not sure about that, but I think The House of the Devil is mostly an exercise in style, and in that respect it is a total success. But I am not convinced that it is only an exercise in style. I think it still elicits a real feeling of dread.

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From Jeremy Irons‘ iPhone

Sean: Right… So I’m on this kick right now of thinking that if things are going to be remade or styles revived, then there has to be a cultural need or reason for it. The catalyst for this line of thinking being my annoyance at the remake of  Carrie, which seems particularly pointless based on the trailer. This is obviously not an original critique and has been articulated a lot in the last 15 years of constant remakes.

Kristine: Gotcha. Who determines the cultural need and how do they do it?

Sean: Well, I guess the movie itself reveals if it deserved to be made or not… Did it figure out a way to be relevant to the contemporary moment, or was it just nostalgia? I feel like the filmmakers of a remake need to understand what the cultural context was for the original film and how the movie was an expression of desire or anxiety about something in the culture at that moment, and then look at our contemporary moment and figure out a way to adapt the basic premise of the original to the new context. The two versions of The Fly are perfect examples of this. Both the 1950s version and the 1980s version are very much speaking to their own historical/cultural moment, while sharing a similar premise. I am uncertain if pure nostalgia is premise enough for the revival or re-crafting of an original style/artifact.

Kristine: Is there no place for nostalgia in culture??

Sean: Of course there is. But…. There is no reason to tell the story of Carrie in the same way as DePalma and King did in the 1970s right now. The only reason to re-tell the story of Carrie in 2013 would be to update it so that it reflects our current anxieties and fantasies. That is my point. Regurgitating the anxieties of a bygone era seems to me to be one of the most meaningless things a filmmaker could do.

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Thanksgiving with the Santorums

Kristine: I agree with that. I think doing something just to see if you can do it, as an exercise, is appropriate for a student film, but not a film for the public.

Sean: Now that I’ve said all that, I actually want to say that I’m not condemning Ti West and The House of the Devil.

Kristine: I was just going to ask you that.

Sean: I think, upon re-watching it, that the movie’s anxiety about impregnation and procreation make it relevant to the moment, to the now, even if it is also a bit of a time capsule of 1980s Reagan-era paranoia.

Kristine: How so?

Sean: Ultimately, the movie is about the female body. It is about rape and procreation and about a woman’s body being used, co-opted. I just feel like, with all the abortion shit going on in the culture right now, there’s a resonance there.

Kristine: Huh, okay. Question – are we to infer that Samantha is a virgin?

Sean: I had not even considered that question… Um, I would guess no just because no college student should be a virgin. That is perverse.

Kristine: Well, Megan is dismissed as a candidate for “the ritual” right?

Sean: No, I don’t see it that way. Megan is just a loose end. The Satanists didn’t count on the babysitter being driven by someone else.

Kristine: I think Samantha is a virgin – that’s why she’s so disgusted with her roommate and the one-night-stand winking at her.

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Isn’t this how you distribute the cranberry sauce at your Thanksgiving?

Sean: Haha. Right. I would agree, I guess, that Samantha is virginAL and/or prudish.

Kristine: ……

Sean: Hello?

Kristine: I am just lost in thought, thinking about the revolting scene when the cat-faced demon pours the blood in Samantha’s mouth. Vom.

Sean: Omg right? I was impressed by the whole ritual sequence. It’s really effective and creepy and grotesque.

Kristine: Sean, it’s so gross. Are the last twenty minutes all the more effective because the movie has been mostly so banal up to that point?

Sean: Well…. is it “banal”?

Kristine: Well, there was tension, but it was… I wasn’t chewing my fingernails off or pulling my own toes off like I do when I get really stressed out.

Sean: This leads to a question I was going to ask you…. For me, one of the great achievements of this movie is just rendering so effectively what its like to be in a strange house by yourself. Have you had that experience? Did you babysit as a teen? Just the weirdness of being in an unfamiliar house alone.

Kristine: Yes. And I always snooped around and always got freaked out by something. One of the things I totally related to was when Samantha smashes the vase and is like “Oh fuck.” Another example of class tension, since the vase probably costs more than the $400 she is making.

Sean: Yes exactly.

Kristine: I remember once, when I was 11 or so and babysitting (that would probably not happen these days) discovering some sex manual the parents had and being like, “Yep, well they molest children. No doubt about it!” And Sean, it was like The Joy of Sex or something similar.

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Gothic stairway jazzercise realness

Sean: Ridic.

Kristine: Yep. Does the dancing scene only exists to bring 1980s realness?

Sean: Can I just say, I hate watching characters dance in movies and she pulls it off without embarrassing herself?

Kristine: Agreed. It’s fun and cute.

Sean: Her mom jeans.

Kristine: That 1980s skipping/dancing. It does annoy me that the majority of criticism about this movie only talks about the 1980s styling. It might, in fact, be the only thing of import, but the story should at least be talked about, even if it is summarily dismissed as a means to an end.

Sean: Well let’s talk about it. Do you agree that this movie is about reproductive anxiety?

Kristine: I don’t actually. I’m not sure it’s about anything. I think the pregnancy is put it in there just to up the creepiness, and it certainly does that.

Sean: Kristine, Samantha couldn’t be pregnant at the end though because, when a woman has actually been violated, her body has a way of shutting that whole thing down….

Kristine: Oh, yeah, you’re right. She must have wanted the demon baby.

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Really, Dee? A mauve Sears parka?

Sean: I think the whole movie is about rape and about the horror/terror of being impregnated against your will, and just about the vulnerability of the female body… The whole “babysitter-in-peril” substrain of horror movies, in my mind, have always had a basic female terror of the domestic at their heart. And I think The House of the Devil is predicated on that same anxiety, which is still culturally relevant. Remember, Megan reminds Samantha that she “hates kids.” Samantha shoots herself once she’s been invaded/raped/impregnated. For a movie so stripped down to this bare central premise, I think it is remarkably dense with subtext and thematic resonance (in the same way Onibaba is). Just the central conceit of the movie is so rich – that from the perspective of this young, ambitious woman just starting out on her own, the domestic sphere itself is a malevolent place tinged with menace and evil. That’s a reflection of real cultural anxiety. Remember how purposefully the movie sets up this theme in the opening scene where Samantha’s future landlady (played by 1980s scream queen Dee Wallace) repeatedly emphasizes how precarious a young woman is when she’s just starting out in the world. Wallace’s landlady keeps saying, “I know how it is. I remember when my daughter was just starting out…” I love how the movie starts out with this moment of sisterhood, with ladies helping ladies. The older generation of women (who have been there, done that) is helping the younger generation of women get a foothold in the world, and be self-determining free agents. That opening, to me, tells me the movie has a feminist frame of mind, and that the true “horror” the movie is interested in confronting us with is that final image of Samantha’s body, robbed of personhood and coopted as a mere vessel for reproduction. Samantha’s forward trajectory, and her own self-determined advancement in the world, is brought to a horrible, perverse end by being assaulted, raped and impregnated. The Ulmans see Samantha not as a person, but merely as a reproductive object. What could be a more horrifying idea for a young woman who wants a life for herself, who wants to make her own decisions and be a real person? It is fairly easy to see the Ulmans as a metaphor for these conservative (and retrograde – which is aestheticized in the Ulmans’ aristocratic, “Old World” bearing) forces in culture that do not want to recognize a woman’s right to choose her own reproductive destiny.

Kristine: I can see how the movie’s got a possibly feminist point-of-view if it is constructing those conservative, retrograde cultural forces as being queer/monstrous. So basically, Todd Akin and Rick Santorum are Mr. Ulman. But that final ritual sequence definitely cements the notion of “the queer” as something that is not all together “conservative”-looking. Remember that Samantha is raped and impregnated sans vaginal penetration, and by a she-demon, not a human man.

Sean: From one point of view, it’s the most “tasteful” and least exploitative rape scene in the history of cinema. Just in how it aestheticizes rape in an entirely symbolic way.

Kristine: I get what you’re saying but it’s so funny that we’re talking about a teenage girl in her panties tied to a pentagram and forced to drink blood from a skull. So tasteful. So refined.

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Decide for yourself what this is a close-up of…

Sean: But the she-demon is easily read as the physical embodiment of deeply perverse “Christian” conservative values… She’s just the patron saint of the Santorums/Akins of the world. If Satan has historically always been a metaphor for the rebellious element of culture that wants to overthrow patriarchy and heteronormativity, then I think it is possible that the project of The House of the Devil is to relocate that “Satanic evil” as fundamentally patriarchal, conservative and heteronormative. If the goal of conservative heterosexual culture is procreation – and if you don’t believe that it is, the anti-gay marriage movement is making exactly those arguments before the Supreme Court – than that is what “the Devil” is here. And the hero of the piece is a young, feminist woman who rejects the idea of being maternal, of being nurturing, and of identifying herself solely by her reproductive capabilities. Of course, in order for the metaphors to work the movie has to be genuinely frightening. Do you think this movie scary?

Kristine: Yes, I think it is. The scene when she is about to open the attic door, before the lights go out? When the affects of the poisoned pizza (eye roll) are kicking in? That scene was genuinely nauseating (great camera work and sound) – it made me feel ill and full of dread. After she is impregnated and is having uncontrollable visions of the demon – that was scary and awful. I find Samantha’s decision to shoot herself instead of Mr. Ulman completely credible. Do you think it is scary?

Sean: Yes. I think the scene where the attic door slowly starts to open is hella scary. And the whole movie is suffused with dread. I have to say, I went into re-watching this with a bad attitude and being annoyed with the director. But it totally rocked me again. I also want to point out, to support my above argument, that when Samantha switches on the tv to eat her pizza, the ending of Night of the Living Dead is playing – specifically the moment when both Helen, the overwrought mother, and Barbra, the young ingenue, are being grabbed and fondled by the hands of the zombie hordes at they break into the house. The subtext of that moment syncs up with the subtext of The House of the Devil – the house as a malevolent domestic space prone to invasion and the idea of women-in-danger.

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When Samantha heard Jeremy Irons‘ thoughts on gay marriage….

Kristine: Sean, are there Satanists living on your street? You do live… in the desert. That’s where they come from these days. And all of Tucson is obsessed with the ways of the moon…

Sean: I love it and I hope there are.

Kristine: Actually, once again, your neighborhood is probably scared of your house. You are recreating your childhood.

Sean: It is true that some old couples here won’t wave back when my boyfriend and I all homosexually wave at them when we’re walking our dogs. You know that I am legitimately obsessed with Satan though, right? In terms of what Satan is a metaphor for, not as an actual thing.

Kristine: Umm, yeah. I’ve been your friend for 50,000 years. I think I got the message.

Sean: Jesus.

Kristine: No, Satan. That is like me telling you, “You know I kind of like to drink alcohol, right?”

Sean: I just want to restate for the record: our heroine is roofied, tied up, raped and impregnated and then tries to kills herself rather than have the baby but is kept on life support by a shadowy paternal culture so she can birth the rapebaby and then you said “This movie isn’t about anything.”

Kristine: I think what’s striking, especially with your supportive and non-confrontational summary of my thoughts, is that the turn of events you’re describing happens in, like, every other episode of Law & Order. There is nothing especially “horror movie” about it. It’s just one of the shit possibilities lady citizens face. Now I’m depressed.

Sean: Aw….

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At the Wyoming Women’s Health Hostage Clinic

Kristine: Let me be clear. Yes, of course I think this movie is “about” the violation of the female body. But I think that storyline is primarily a means to an end, that end being style. And I am okay with that.

Sean: I think its very significant that Samantha is trying to get her own place, earn money and make it in the world… She’s a modern gal trying to do it for herself…

Kristine: Yeah, agreed. And she is foiled, on the real tip.

Sean: Also, wet hair in the tub is gross.

Kristine: That hair. Okay, truth talk? When you told me we were revisiting this movie, I was trying to remember things and I totally couldn’t picture the cat-faced demon at all… but I remembered that hair.

Sean: Hahaha. Also, this movie made me want to eat pizza. Does that make me a masochist?

Kristine: Probably. Okay, a poisoned pizza is dumb. But pizza is significant when you want to create 1980s realness. Also, the way Megan ate her food in the pizza parlor made me want to die.

Sean: Do you like pepperoni? On your ‘za? I think I remember you ordering slices with, like, potatoes and extra potatoes on them.

Kristine: I love potatoes on my pizza. No pepperoni. And no saying “za.”

Sean: S’get some ‘za, bro.

Kristine: Every food item is made better with a topping of potatoes. Says the Polish princess.

 

Ratings Roundup

The Girl’s Rating: I’m traumatized but it sort of feels good.

The Freak’s Rating: More feminist than you’d think AND Stylistic triumph

Never give a burn victim her own camcorder...
Never give a burn victim her own camcorder…

25 thoughts on “Movie Discussion: Ti West’s The House of the Devil (2009)

  1. After watching VHS, I didn’t get a misogynistic vibe from it at all. Would you consider the movie to be feminist if all the shorts featured male monsters? When you mentioned Ti West misogynist work I actually thought you were talking about M for Miscarriage the short he did for The ABCs of Death. Now that was misogynist (and lazy).

    1. Hmmm… no, I definitely wouldn’t consider it feminist if all 5 stories had featured “male” monsters. In fact, I would probably think it was kind of weird. When an anthology movie like this has the same idea being driven home in all 5 stories, it’s totally bizarre. But I really found V/H/S to be grotesquely sexist. I think a lot of that has to do with the frame story, in which a bunch of dudebro rapists are the ones who find the tape and so, in a way, they are the imagined audience for all the stories and every single story repeatedly insists that women are (a) abject (b) monstrous and (c) untrustworthy. Another reason I won’t let the movie off the hook is because of the historical context. It’s really easy to forgive (or at least, understand) a movie from the 1970s or 1980s for the whole “women as monsterbitches” thing because of the historical/sociological context – the movies operate as much as time capsules/artifacts of a bygone era as they do pieces of entertainment. But when its 2013 and there are STILL movies being made with this subtext? And its an anthology movie with the explicit purpose of showcasing 5 directors who are considered the “future” of the genre? Gross. I fault the new Evil Dead remake for the same thing – re-articulating a deep distrust of and disgust with women as if its 1981….. (especially that Lou Taylor Pucci line – “I just don’t want to be the devil’s BITCH”). Ugh.

      1. I won’t even comment Evil Dead (remake) because I’ve had the misfortune of living in a country where movies take a long time to release. But going back to VHS (and I’m sorry for hijacking the subject of the post) I actually felt bad as a man. I agree it’s sexist but I think it’s the male gender that gets the bad rap here. All I wanted to do was put those punks heads through the wall for the things they were doing and most of the male characters more or less suffered from the same “stupidity”. We’re probably looking at the same thing and seeing two different things. Where you see the dudebro rapists (amazing description by the way) as the intended audience, I see them as the object of hate, the malevolent force in the movie. It’s actually interesting that the top story is about horrible male stereotypes and then they die while watching tapes about “monster women”. I don’t really have the pretense of claiming to know what the subtext message really was, but it is interesting that both of us got almost the exact opposite image.

        1. I can see that reading actually (where the men are the “monsters” in the frame story)… I’m so excited we have international readers! Where are you from?

          1. I’m from Portugal, a small in-debt country who, according to history books, was once one of the biggest empires in the world (back when Brazil and a few others were still Portugal). Cue a few century’s and we’re almost a third world country (not yet but getting there step by step). In terms of movie culture we’re something of a mix between Hollywood and Europe cinema. We have very talented people but with a population of 10 million who mostly only want to see Hollywood blockbusters it’s extremely difficult for good movies to be made here.

            Sorry for the wikipedian entry… I’m just a guy who loves movies that happens to live in Portugal.

            1. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Portuguese horror movie…. The closest I can think of are those Brazilian Coffin Joe movies, but those don’t really count. Anything to recommend?

                1. Oh and I almost forgot this one O Conto Do Vento . It’s only the trailer but you can see it’s an extremely well done dark fairy tale. It won the 2011 MOTELx award for Best Portuguese Horror Short. Eli Roth was there to present the award and he was amazed at the quality of all the entries considering the size of the country and the available funding.

        2. Hugo, I haven’t seen V/H/S, so even though I have no right to comment, I am going to go ahead and say that I like your read. I have similar feelings when I see the seemingly ubiquitous “man as clueless, insensitive oaf” character in endless sitcoms, commercials, and movies. It’s a depiction that simply doesn’t apply to ANY of the men in my life and it is lazy and insulting at best. Natch, the clueless, insensitive oaf is inevitably paired with his female foil, the shrewish, uptight, control freak, which is equally offensive – but I feel we’re more conditioned to look critically at media depictions of women. Gross male characters don’t get the same critical eye.

          1. The “doltish dad” is a definite trope of tv and commercials that is annoying. Especially when he is used to repudiate a caring/nurturing side (ex. He just can’t figure out how to change a diaper!)

  2. So happy you guys liked this. Watched it over Christmas, and I was super impressed. Have you seen The Innkeepers, by Ti West?
    I watched VHS last weekend, it really was terrible – such a disappointment. Isn’t the first story asking us to identify with the about-to-be-gang-rapists who bite off more than they can chew? Isn’t it asking us to see the situation through their eyes, like all males can relate to the situation? Must admit I skipped through the rest of the stories, I couldn’t get past the first few minutes of any of them.
    Anyway, THOTD is great, looking forward to West’s next feature length project.

    1. Lincoln, check out The Innkeepers if you haven’t seen it. It’s West’s follow-up to The House of the Devil and its pretty darned good. Similar premise but very different tone. I think’s it on Netflix Instant (do that have that in Australia?)

      1. Saw The Innkeepers before THOTD, and thoroughly enjoyed it – though probably enjoyed House more. Just prefered the plot a bit more, which put it slightly ahead for me.

        1. Agreed. I liked the tone and overall ideas in House better. It was fun to see him attempt something more comedic with Innkeepers, and I thought the lead Sara Paxton was great. It was also a trip to see Lena Dunham as the coffee-shop girl right before she hit it HUGE here with her show Girls…

  3. I found most of the male characters in VHS to be the monsters and thought that was the point of some of the stories. Or perhaps it was a fear of female power that spawned a couple of them or even the film as a whole. So I didn’t see it as sexist but as a backlash toward male aggression. Of course, I could be totally wrong, I don’t pretend to know any of the directors good enough to say what was in their heads. Anyways, I enjoyed your conversation.

    1. Since my hatred of V/H/S has produced the most feedback I guess I should keep digging my own grave and clarify. I’m going to ignore the framestory and focus on the five main narratives:
      1) Amateur Night – a monstrous she-demon preys upon three rapey weirdos. I personally feel that this is the story that establishes the “monstrous female” trope the rest of the movie plays out. Despite the immorality of the three leads, we’re positioned to identify with them in all kinds of ways, and are forced into their perspective. We’re asked to be turned on (even if we’re horrified by it) by their attempts to seduce the two women and then, when the lady gargoyle turns the tables, to identify with THEIR terror and panic. The movie eroticizes the sort-of-date-rape that is happening early in the story. Then the movie invests deeply in the idea of the woman-as-monster after that. I hate this story even more in the context of V/H/S as a whole, in which every story finds the same narrative solution – the monstrousness is always female, usually preying on or deceiving men.
      2) Second Honeymoon – two evil bitch lesbian psychopaths deceive and then murder a poor, innocent bro.
      3) Tuesday the 17th – I liked the effect of the tracking-errors blacking out the murderous entity a lot. But this short has the same resolution as the previous two – its the deceitful woman in the group who has knowingly lured the two men to their deaths. THEN the evil force literally “becomes” the woman by inhabiting her body, now able to stalk the woods forevermore in her form. The unseen force transforms into the feminine, which is monstrous and deceitful.
      4) The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily… – This one is predicated on both the abjectness of female bodies (they grow bumps! they ooze pus! they’re invadeable/penetrateable!) and the inherent instability of the female psyche (the way the story stages acts of female self-harm/”cutting”). It takes on a clinical bent in which the female body is the object not the subject, and is also the grotesque vehicle for the gestation of “alien” things. Again, we see the story from the male doctor’s perspective and even though the ultimate “villain” here is a male mad doctor-type, the story really relies on and exploits our revulsion at the bodies of the women…. Especially the fact that they carry babies to term. The whole thing smacks of a male discomfort with/horrified fascination with women’s procreative abilities (and the whole story is really just another rape story in which the victim’s identity and experiences are sidelined in order to focus on the perpetrator’s experience).
      5) 10/31/98 – A lady ghost-thing gets a bunch of stupid boys to rescue her but then they all die when she Carrie’s them in front of a train. One of the grossest moments is when the narrative (and our pov characters) stops dead to observe the torture of the woman suspended from the rafters (which is eroticized). But whatever, because she turns out to be an uncanny thing anyway….
      Closing thoughts – I see how the movie could be read as being “a backlash towards male aggression” but let me say a couple of things in response to that. I don’t outright reject that reading, but that is NOT my reading. If it is meant in that spirit, I think it does a TERRIBLE job in how often it eroticizes female victims, makes monstrous or deceitful women the scapegoats, and marginalizes anything even close to a female perspective. The POV in this movie is always male, and the women are always the ones being “looked at” and “examined” by this male sensibility. I also want to add that it DOES matter that these stories were all written and directed by straight men – context does matter, and if women filmmakers had made these stories is would alter the reception of the stories (however, I would assert the unprovable argument that if women had made this movie it would look nothing like this and would not be staged in this way at all). I want to add that the UK anthology movie “Little Deaths” has some of the same exact problems as V/H/S (the middle story there might save it or damn it even further to hell, I can’t figure out which). Also “Little Deaths” literally has the exact same first story (“Amateur Night”) but it is done so much more interestingly and effectively in how LD makes the story about class exploitation, and turns the woman-as-monster into much more of a badass avenging angel (and also avoids marking the feminine alone as monstrous – she belongs to a whole tribe of monsters of which she is just one).
      Films are capable of being read from multiple perspectives, and should, and should be debated thusly. But it would take a lot to convince me V/H/S in something other than a reflection of hetero-male anxiety about/fear of/disgust with women (and its actually WORSE if they thought they were actually critiquing all that).
      P.S. I think the question of authorial intent is almost always moot. The makers of A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge claim they had “no idea” they were making a gay movie. Filmmakers’ intent and what actually winds up on the screen often don’t match up and if anything, they wind up revealing things they never “meant” to in the first place. We don’t need permission from the directors to talk about what they made. And I also want to say (this is going to come out bitchy – sorry) that thinking critically about what we’re shown is not “pretending to know.” It’s critical discourse. I was really fascinated by part of the reception to Room 237, that documentary about different readings of/theories about Kubrick’s The Shining. Some media outlets trotted out people who were involved in making the movie to be like, “That is NOT what Kubrick intended!” and thereby missed the whole argument the movie is trying to make about reading/interpretation, critical viewership and perspective.

      1. You made some great points here, I think you have opened my eyes on the film. Now instead of thinking about it as mindless entertainment I’m thinking about, what the filmmakers were trying to say.