Ti West, the young director of indie festival favourites The Roostand Trigger Man, discusses his new film The House of the Deviland challenges the horror industry to stop degrading itself and start making serious movies.
LWLies: How did you first conceive the idea of The House of the Devil?
West: I was always obsessed with this cultural phenomenon called 'satanic panic' which came out of the States in the early '80s. Everyone believed there was a sort of satanic cult running around and kidnapping people and sacrificing them to the Devil and, for whatever reason, for a couple of years there was this almost overwhelming hysteria about it. It was on all the daytime talk shows and I can really remember that very clearly from my childhood. I think there’s some very evocative and provocative imagery mixed up with it all, and I hadn’t seen a cool satanic movie for quite a while. I’d just got out of college and I was broke and I didn’t know what to do. It’s a really hard step in your life because it’s like, ‘alright now I have to be an adult because there’s no more school,’ but you don’t have any money. So I kind of added a personal element in to the film and then added in the classic babysitter horror story, and it sort of like came together like that.
How much do you view the film as a homage to the other horror movies that were around in the period the film is set? Is it purely a love-letter, or are you trying to say something about modern-day horror movies as well?
It’s not so much an homage. I think that idea is tossed around a lot but the reality is that this satanic panic stuff was genuinely going on in the early '80s. The Devil isn’t really relevant now like it was then because there’s now all kinds of real stuff to be afraid of, so for me the movie would only really make sense if it took place in the early '80s. So for me it’s a really authentic period piece in the same way that if I made a movie set in the '50s I’d try and make it look as much like the '50s as possible. I’m pretty obsessive-compulsive about details so to me its a period piece and its not until the movie has come out that we thought ‘maybe we’ve made a better movie than we thought,’ because everyone really seems to have chimed in about how authentic it looks.
Something that struck us from early on was not just the attention to detail but the incredibly composed feel to it. It’s much slower and more pensive than so many modern horror films. How much did you try to instill a sense of restraint in the film?
I think part of that is just my own sensibilities. Everyone says its a slow-burning, old-fashioned horror movie and I guess it is but at the same time that’s just how my brain works and that’s the kind of movie I’ve made for the last three movies or so. I find it interesting how surprising it is for people to find a horror movie that is paced like a normal movie. That’s less of a comment about me and more of a comment on the way things are now – that a movie that takes its time and treats itself like a serious film is completely odd in horror movies that have got used to aiming at lowest common denominator audiences. I think that’s a shame because horror movies have so much potential and it’s really just pigeon-holed into how many people can we kill in 90 minutes.
Rosemary’s Babyis the one I hear a lot but, if we’re going to do down that road, I’d argue films like Repulsionor The Tenant were subconscious influences on me. But there wasn’t so much direct influences, more that all these movies were in my subconscious as my favourite horror movies. The Shining,as well. Those were the movies that were really the formative movies for me when it comes to horror, and those were the ones that I learned everything from.
So what were your objectives when making a horror film beyond scaring people?
Scaring people is one of many, and that’s on the small-scale. I think of myself as a personal film-maker and I’m always trying to accomplish something – whatever it is that’s important to me, or whatever commentary, or whatever film-making or artistic goal I want to accomplish, which is different for every movie – that’s what I set myself up to do, and I really put my life on hold to do that. In horror movies there is this element of audience participation where you can tease them or scare them, and that’s fine, but I’m not the kind of director that goes, 'alright, we’re really going to scare them here, or we’re really going to gross them out here.' It’s more about what would interest me in a movie. Of course, I can never watch them after they’re done, but I think I have pretty decent taste so if I can make a movie that really is what I would want to see then I think other people would watch it but it has my stamp on it. So I’m not the kind of director that really thinks, ‘ah, the audience is going to love this moment.’
A lot of horror movies seem to have an ironic, cynical edge to them whereas this seems to be very sincere?
Yeah, I think sincere is a good word. I see The House of the Devilas a very serious movie. To me, the best horror movies are the movies that don’t treat themselves as horror movies. They’re not aware of their own genre. They take themselves and their characters seriously. I think the downside to modern horror is that audiences have become so hip and post-modern about their understanding of movies and in particular genre movies. The filmmakers are now letting everyone in on a big joke. It’s like, ‘we’re all here, we all know what’s coming so let’s elbow everyone in the ribs because it’s all just a big joke.’ I think that’s so degrading to your film to treat it like it doesn’t matter. And I think that’s very representative of a lot of things in our time, but that sucks. I think we need to go back to taking ourselves seriously because the more you lower the bar and the more you wink at the audience, the further away the great films of the past and the occasional great films of the current get because the audience has become the lowest common denominator and its really hard to improve on that. It feels you’re fighting an uphill battle to make serious movies.
Would you describe this film as a genre film, and if so are you just interested in exploring genre or breaking it?
Well, it’s about the Devil and it’s a horror film, so yeah I think it’s a genre film. It’s hard not to put it in that box, but I’m okay with that. I mean, I called it The House of the fucking Devil, I could have called it something else. I’m not so worried about that. It’s not all I want to do though. I’m lucky because once you make a successful horror film people will generally back you to make another, but if you want to go and make a romantic comedy it’s a bit more difficult. So, in the meantime, as long as I’ve written and directed the film and it’s my own personal project, I have no problem making horror films before making other films. But the thing that’s great about the horror genre is you really have a lot of room to explore and experiment with different themes and visual techniques or different types of storytelling with odd characters. All this stuff probably makes it the most versatile genre there is, the only problem is no-one is really using it. People are really pigeon-holing themselves by saying ‘we’ve got to make the same film with a scare every five minutes and a kill every ten minutes.’ They’ve whittled it down to a kind of mathematical nonsense to please the audience and it’s made it really shitty and there’s not a lot to take from it anymore. Occasionally you get an interesting one like Let the Right One In or The Hostwhich have a certain social commentary, and that’s fantastic. But you don’t get it very often anymore so for me, working in the horror genre allows me to fulfill my personal goals and allows me to make comments in a serious way, and that’s really my goal.