House of the Devil had been sitting on my Netflix queue almost since it was released on Netflix. I had heard excellent things about the film and it certainly had one of the best movie posters I had seen in years. I was intrigued with it's use of time period in both film stock and story and was excited that someone was trying new things in the genre of horror. However, even with all of these things going for the film, I somehow avoided watching it until this past weekend. When I finally buckled down and screened it, I was treated to a film so well orchestrated and designed that I found myself ashamed it had taken me so long to give it a look. House of the Devil gave me everything that I crave in a horror film: a simple yet intriguing story, memorable characters, wonderful camera work and a director who knows when to pull the trigger and when to wait. But it's actually that last concept I want to talk about. Director Ti West is the star of this film. His choices regarding mystery and suspense are much of what make this movie so special. But let me back up.
Two weeks ago, I ran across a blog that discussed Alfred Hitchcock's theory of mystery and suspense. I hadn't heard this take on suspense before, but it remains one of the most intriguing concepts in storytelling I've ever heard. Hitch suggests that mystery is an intellectual experience and suspense is an emotional one. Hitchcock was of the belief that mystery was borne out of the audience knowing the same amount as the characters (if not less) and suspense is borne out of the audience being privy to more than the characters. For instance, the suspense of Rope hinges on the fact that, we as the audience, know that there is a body in the trunk. We are emotionally engaged because we want to see if these two young murderers will get caught. Makes sense. Since being exposed to this theory, I have been seeing it's practice in almost every film I watch. However, no film has struck me as more appropriate to this theory recently than the aforementioned House of the Devil. A film that begins with a mystery which carries over into suspense.
The hook of the film is this: Samantha is in dire financial straights and is forced to take a babysitting job in order to pay for her new apartment. The babysitting job turns out to be not what she expected, but under the promise of $400 for four hours of work, she accepts. The beginning of the film is a slow burn (actually the whole film is), we get a setup: Samantha needs money, we get a switch: Samantha is being hired to look after an elderly woman-not a child. We know something is wrong, but we don't know what. We, as the audience, are searching with Samantha for answers. This story/audience dynamic is typical of the mystery genre. However, the plot takes a turn when the movie follows Samantha's friend Megan after she drops Samantha off at her new job. Megan's fate, in a key scene, informs us that Samantha is in very real danger. We move past the feeling of impending doom and into the reality of it. We now know more than Samantha and while we make new discoveries along with her, we are now operating from a place of emotion and not intellect. We've gone from Mystery to suspense.
After the reveal and switch of the film's dynamic, the remainder of the story is spent at a slow build to what is possibly the most intense and satisfying endings to a film since The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Since we know that Samantha may be doomed, we now want to see if it will happen and how. For all of the build-up, the last portion of the film puts the audience and Samantha through the ringer as she faces torment both earthly and supernatural. The slow burn of the previous 78 minutes has kept us tethered to a promise of a horrific finale After the film comes to a roiling boil and an extreme resolution, the story chooses to stradle the line between mystery and suspense in a coda that leaves us with more anticipation, wondering at our hero's true fate.
In his review of the film, Roger Ebert called it "an introduction for some audience members to the Hitchcockian definition of suspense: It's the anticipation, not the happening, that's the fun." I couldn't agree more. Director Ti West has crafted a story that takes us slowly through a mystery into the realm of suspense and back again. Questions are asked, but it is the suspense brought on by the audience's private discoveries that give this film power. Well played, Mr. West. I think Hitch would be proud.