Sunday, February 7, 2010

house of the devil, etc.


So, uh, not really updating the blog enough lately. Y'know, busy, distracted, uninspired, blah blah blah, excuses, words...Another movie from last year I was really impressed by was HOUSE OF THE DEVIL. Generally speaking, I have nothing against excess in horror films- if you're going to go over the top, it's the genre to do it in, but there's definitely something to be said for minimalism as well. HOUSE OF THE DEVIL is pretty remarkable in how much it does with how little. Relying largely on atmosphere and the charm of its leading actresses (Jocelin Donahue as Samantha, the film's shy protagonist, and Greta Gerwig as Megan, her outgoing friend), Ti West's film contains almost no action of any kind in its first half, but you don't really miss it. Having watched it twice now, I'm still not entirely sure why, except for that atmosphere and those actresses (as well as creepy supporting roles by Tom Noonan and the great Mary Woronov), because this is really where so many similar horror films fail, in the build up (particularly slasher films from the late-70s/early-80s, from which HOUSE OF THE DEVIL borrows some of its veneer). If there's nothing going on, there isn't much to get interested in or care about, but here it works, it's pretty great, and the ultimately effect of the slow build up is that the viewer becomes very invested in the main characters, so when the horror does start, you actually care about what's happening, in fact more than caring about it, it's pretty emotionally jarring, and adds an extra level of discomfort and upset to the film's finale.

Apparently Ti West went to the same film school as I did, which is pretty cool, and I guess we were actually there at the same time, although I don't recall ever meeting, he might have been a few years behind me. Still, it's good to see someone from the ol' alma mater make good (since I certainly haven't). I first became aware of him with his 2005 feature THE ROOST, which a friend and I caught during its brief theatrical run in NYC. THE ROOST is an interesting film, not entirely successful, but certainly original and effective. West's films have some uncomfortable and off-kilter about them, it's difficult to specifically pinpoint, there's just a certain aesthetic sense and approach to narrative structure that comes from somewhere seemingly alien, defying not just genre conventions, but cinematic expectation in general. Whatever it is, and I wonder if it's something overtly intentional or just the peculiar creative vision of an individual filmmaker, it adds to the overall sense of dread these films inspire.

Having liked HOUSE OF THE DEVIL so much and having had such a strong, albeit mixed, albeit generally positive reaction to THE ROOST, I was kind of excited to discover that West had made a film in between the two, 2007's TRIGGER MAN. So I watched it. And it sucked. It sucked kind of a lot. TRIGGER MAN is a move that has absolutely nothing going for it. Bad acting, bad cinematography, no story and worst of all no sense of any greater meaning or importance beyond exactly what's happening on the screen at any given moment. It's utterly meaningless. A group of three guys goes out in the woods to hunt. Someone starts shooting at them. Two of them are killed. The third surviving member tracks down the people who have been shooting at them and shoots them. The end. It's not like some kind of DELIVERANCE or HILLS HAVE EYES scenario, there's no sense of danger or the character's sense of self/humanity being challenged. There isn't any build up to the action, nor is there any character development that works in any way. It isn't cryptic, mysterious or challenging, it's just a lot of nothing going on. What the fuck? Maybe if this was his first film, it would be easier to just write it off, but West already had one mostly decent film under his belt when he made this. Granted, TRIGGER MAN was a pretty low budget movie, but it's hard to imagine someone really sinking their money into this, to think that another, better movie possibly didn't get made because some producer decided to roll with this one.

That said, I really liked HOUSE OF THE DEVIL a lot, enough to consider West a strong emerging talent and to look forward to his next film, CABIN FEVER 2, which comes out in a couple of weeks and has to its advantage that it couldn't possibly be any worst than the first one...Well, actually, it totally could be, but I'm still looking forward to it...

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