It’s nearly Halloween, so it seemed apt to feature a Halloween Horror double bill. I decided to go for two films by Ti West, who has earned himself a place as one of my favourite current writer/directors with these two horror crackers.
Ti West is probably best known to many through his “Second Honeymoon” segment in horror portmanteau V/H/S. In the short film he plays with audience expectations of gender, with a young couple finding themselves being terrorised by a mysterious third party in their motel room. Now this is far from West’s best work, but does hint at some of the themes which permeate the rest of his work; strong female leads, a nod to the past and a slow-build approach to horror.
The House of the Devil (2009) is not only set in the 1980’s but also pays effective homage to horror films of the late 70s and early 80s. Sitting somewhere between Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen and Halloween, The House of the Devil takes classic horror elements in a period setting and makes them feel fresh and interesting.
Jocelin Donahue plays Samantha, a college student trying desperately to make enough money to escape dorms and her terrible, constantly humping, room-mate. She finds herself the perfect apartment, and a sympathetic land-lady who is happy to waive many of the upfront fees, but she needs to find the first month’s rent by the end of the weekend. In a twist of fate an advert appears on a campus noticeboard for a baby sitter needed over the weekend. Samantha contacts the mysterious Mr Ullman (Tom Noonan) and finds herself embarking on the world’s worst babysitting gig.
The House of the Devil is a real slow-burn chiller, with strong characters, meticulous attention to period detail and a quietly building sense of dread, with a distinctly explosive pay-off.
The Innkeepers (2011) is a slightly different affair, borrowing as much from mumble-core and modern slacker film-making as it does from classic horror.
The Yankee Pedlar Inn is about to shut its doors to guests for the last time. The titular innkeepers are employees Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy), who have been trying to increase interest in the Inn through their ghost-watching website. The pair have been setting up cameras and recording the spooky movements and odd noises around the inn for some time, but had never caught anything concrete on film. Now, in the closing weekend they decide they need to have one last attempt at getting evidence of the inn’s haunting on film. However, the inn still has some human guests, including Top Gun’s own Kelly McGillis as Leanne, an ex-soap actress who now has a very different new career, which add an extra barrier to effective ghost-hunting. As Luke begins to find things get too tense for him Claire begins to investigate on her own, leading her down a very dark path.
More of an exercise in paranoia and tension than all out scares, The Innkeepers concentrates on building up the audiences relationship with characters which gives the final act all the more impact.
Both Claire in The Innkeepers and Sam in The House of the Devil break the normal mould of the modern horror heroine, being far more than bodies to be mutilated or a pair of lungs to provide chilling screams. Both characters just happen to be women, who aren’t there for sexual titillation or to forward a romantic storyline (although the Luke/Claire relationship in Innkeepers is very touching), they are fully-formed people with emotional lives outside their involvement with men.*
In an age where everyone lives their lives at a million miles an hour and is constantly multi-tasking, it is refreshing to have a film-maker who isn’t afraid to slow things down and concentrate on the basics.
For fans of slow-burning, intelligent films harking back to the heyday of horror, these two by Ti West are must-views.
*For more on Ti West’s feminist chops see this great essay on Feministfilm