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Bending the conventions

THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL

This weekend I wasn’t feeling very social. And since my girlfriend was, it gave me a chance to nestle in with Ti West’s horror film from 2009. I’ve been hearing about his newest film “The Innkeepers” which played at SXSW, so I wanted to educate myself.

This film is a great example of how to keep a genre fresh. Not easy to do…especially in horror. But because the audience knows the conventions, it’s easy to break them, and play with them. Some audiences thought Ti’s style was too slow, and called it a “slow burn” horror movie. I don’t know where the term slow burn comes from, but it’s useless, and describes nothing.

Most horror films have no trouble appeasing audiences. They want kills, dammit. And so kills they will get. But most stories never build up the kills. They’re like pornos. Suspense doesn’t exist. Only the money shots matter.

Ti is saying the kills don’t matter. In fact, his last ten minutes are not the strongest part of the film – they’re by comparison the weakest. I don’t recall my enjoyment coming from the kills. They came from the build up. Why is “The Shining” my favorite horror movie? It’s not because Jack shoves an axe into Holloran’s chest.

As with any suspenseful film, just because nothing happens doesn’t mean it’s not working. I’ve read comments like “She just walks around the house for 90 minutes.” Actually, the more accurate observation would be, she doesn’t know the dangers lurking in the house, and the one outside. But we do.

That’s what Ebert is referring to when he says the suspense is Hitchcockian. Here’s the two people sitting and arguing. Not interesting. But let’s put a bomb under their table, and what do we get?

This film gets equal praise and criticism for its retro throwback to 80s films. The lead actress resembles Margo Kidder (Black Christmas). The freeze frame titles are in a lot of 70s and 80s opening credits sequences. But these aren’t abused for kitsch, the way they are in Tarantino’s “Death Proof”. As a result, this is the stronger film.

As I write my own horror film, I will always think about the way West used suspense here, and the way he bent the conventions of the genre to his advantage.

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