Call it "slow horror," "art horror," "indie horror," even "hipster horror" if you must, but in "The House of the Devil," filmmaker Ti West is definitely doing something that stands apart from the usual guts and gore of most contemporary horror movies. Preferring the slow burn to fast thrills, West somehow transforms the mundane into the macabre, and when his film finally takes a step into the supernatural, it comes as even more of a shock because of the muted atmosphere that precedes it.
Already available on video-on-demand, "Devil" opens in Los Angeles, New York and Austin, Texas, theaters on Friday. The film has enjoyed a successful run at international festivals, and the genre website twitchfilm.net recently called it "quite simply, the American horror film of the year."
The movie's setup utilizes some familiar elements: A female college student (Jocelin Donahue), fed up with her slovenly, oversexed dorm roommate, sets out to find an apartment of her own. Scrambling for cash to make a deposit, she takes a last-minute baby-sitting job for a couple who live out in the country that pays extra well but seems stranger and stranger the more she finds out about it. As the night proceeds, the punishing boredom of a tedious job eventually builds into an explosive satanic freak-out finale.
"We all know something's going to happen," said West of the film's measured pacing. "It's called 'House of the Devil.' The audience knows where it's going."
Tucked into a booth at a Los Angeles restaurant infamous for being the location of Sharon Tate's last dinner before the Manson murders, West, in skinny black jeans and a faded heavy-metal T-shirt, with a scruff of beard and scraggly hair, looks like someone sent down from Central Casting for the role of indie film director. The 29-year-old West writes, directs, edits and often operates the camera on his films, and "Devil" is his fourth feature after "The Roost" (2005), "Trigger Man" (2006) and the unreleased, stuck in post-production limbo "Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever."
"The House of the Devil," shot in Connecticut in 18 days for just under $1 million, has a deadpan 1980s setting, including a spot-on retro title sequence and theme song, though the period is used more for its odd, eerie blankness rather than any rib-nudging irony.
The cast also includes veteran character actors Tom Noonan ("Synecdoche, New York") and Mary Woronov ("The Devil's Rejects") as the creepy couple who turn out to be even more nefarious than they first seem. Mumblecore muse Greta Gerwig turns up as a cautiously annoyed friend, sporting a Farrah-flip hairstyle.
Prior to the premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, West had a brief public spat with some of the film's producers over whether to cut less than four minutes of footage featuring Donahue alone in the house. (West prevailed when Magnet Releasing picked up the film.) "I joke around and say 'slow' or 'boring' all the time," West said, "and I mean it affectionately. I realize I should probably stop saying that because it doesn't come across that way, but for me the slowness is not a bad thing. It doesn't mean it's slow, it just means there's people not getting killed. That's what slow means in modern horror -- people aren't dying.
"For me, I don't go to horror movies to see people die. What makes the scary stuff work is the contrast between when the people are alone living their lives and then when the horror stuff happens. If there isn't a strong contrast there, then it just becomes a thing of cool ways to kill people."
Actress Donahue, 27, grew up not far from where the film was shot and has previously done modeling and commercial work as well as having small roles in films such as "The Burrowers" and "He's Just Not That Into You." The chance to finally play a lead role was worth the harried strain of the low-budget shoot and the tense climactic scenes, which she describes as "weird," "crazy" and "intense."
"She's just so different from most of the roles that I read for," said Donahue of her character, "and I read a lot of horror movies. She was smart and innocent in a way that many roles aren't these days. Even though she ends up in a really terrifying situation, she never seems like a fool for making the choices she makes."
West also has a five-episode Web series, "Dead and Lonely," premiering on IFC.com starting Monday, about a vampire who finds her victims through an online dating site. Following the frustration of the sidelined "Cabin Fever" sequel and the struggle to see his version of "The House of the Devil" released, West feels his idiosyncratic brand of horror has been vindicated by the positive reception "Devil" has been receiving on the festival circuit.
"Part of the plan for making the movie was to set up this section where you think, 'Oh, my God, something's going to happen,' and nothing happens," West explained. "As an audience, you go, 'I kept thinking it was going to happen and it didn't, so now I have no idea where it's coming from.'
"It's a girl-in-a-house movie. It's not like we're breaking some crazy new ground, so the only thing you can do is really mess with people's expectations. In order to make it scary, the only thing to do is really make sure people don't know what's coming."