Before X, There was the House of the Devil

Ti West coming back to horror might be a good time to reminisce about his first success.

A girl is seen smiling and walking in front of a house, a church sits in the bakground. The title of the movie on the left.
Still from the movie

Variety called this the best babysitter movie from the 80s, except The House of the Devil was actually released in 2009. Still, from its opening credits, there’s little surprise that the world was dumbfounded by the subtle craft with which Ti West put this movie together.

Depending on which interview you stumble upon, it’s interesting to note that the director claimed he wrote the screenplay either when he was in uni or just after having made the Rook, his very first feature. As is often the case, I will assume thatWest got his idea in college, and like with most creations this matured over time.

Glass Eye Pix, Larry Fessenden’s production company, had been at the helm of the Rook, and West claimed that when he finished shooting, all Larry wanted to know was what would be his next move. West said he had this film in mind that would be set around the 80s and the Satanic Panic. This certainly pleased Fessenden but West claimed that at the time, Glass Eye Pix couldn’t fix a budget. Instead, the filmmaker proposed Trigger Man, his second feature. If a woman walking through a lone mansion couldn’t work with the budget, certainly two hunters walking through the woods for over one hour would make do.

It did. Trigger Man got produced and right afterwards, West left Glass Eye Pix and directed Cabin Fever 2. Doing research for this paper, it’s interesting to note that in every interview about the House of the Devil, the journalist always asked about Cabin Fever 2. Even in France, I knew that Ti West had rejected the movie and wanted his name removed from the whole ordeal, even though this never happened. From what I got, it’s mainly because at first, Lionsgate tlet the young filmmaker sort of free, but as the production went on, they became more controlling, turning the teenage movie West so wanted to do in a more regular horror flick.

Disappointed with his treatment for his first studio movie, it’s really no surprise, West came back to Glass Eye Pix. “This time they had the money” he stated. Although he thinks that having shot a big budget movie with his team probably helped. We were just beginners in the eyes of the producers, he claimed, but having made studio movies we were now “experienced”.

The plot of the House of the Devil revolves around Jocelyn Donahue playing a young girl trying to find some quick money by babysitting for a couple of strangers. Weirdly enough, the odd couple seem to live in some dark isolated mansion and a lunar eclipse is looming.

Well, the house wasn’t as isolated as one might think, a problem that Ti West had to deal with. Since he had no better option, his production designer had to redo all the interior, going as far as adding a fake wall in the kitchen because the tenants did not want some furniture moved around.

For the cast, the matter was more simple since West contacted either actors he knew, or had worked with or wanted to work with. The young filmmakers got lucky since most of them accepted. Concerning Donahue, the matter was more complex, while West states that he wanted to hire her from the start, he still asked for a lot more rendez-vous ahead of the production, something he says was maybe unnecessary.

Through the casting, West claimed he saw too many attractive girls coming in, glad they would make the lead in a horror production. West thought of his movie more as a period piece. A lot of it was based on his souvenirs of that era. Whether it’d be the coke glass he asked his production designer to find, or Greta Gerwig’s annoying ringtone. Hell, even the whole need to make a movie about the Satanic Panic stemmed from his mom telling him not to go play alone in the park for Satanists might kidnap and sacrifice him.

For the young filmmaker, his movie was more akin to Rosemary’s Baby or the Changeling or Repulsion than anything else. It would be a quiet, mystery movie for the first part before delving in utter craziness in its very last minute. West needed a lead who understood that, he wanted to be certain Donahue understood. She did, preparing for the role, she even went as far as watching horror movie from the era, stating that she never was a horror movie buff.

Akin to Livid, it’s the production design that would be the highlight of the movie, with some people tricking other peeps into believing this was a lost 80s movie. And one can see why. For a movie shot in just eighteen days for a budget slightly under one million, this does not show. Albeit, this movie was shot in Connecticut because of tax incentives and this probably helped. Livid production designer won an award and I’m still wondering why the House of the Devil didn’t get one. And, to me, it’s really no surprise that A24, the production company who hired Robert Eggers because of his attention to details, hired West to make a horror movie set in the 70s.

Another piece of drama that surrounds the movie was its Tribeca first screening. According to West, the producers got cold feet, when having to face an audience, they now wondered if the movie they’d made wasn’t too slow. In order to speed things up they cut the two scenes in which Donahue explores the house. What they didn’t know was that West was adamant this scene be in the movie. Mainly because one of the central ideas he wanted to explore was our tendency to delve when we find ourselves alone in a stranger’s abode.

Ultimately, before Magnolia pictures bought the whole thing, the four lost minutes were put back in the movie. Still, it meant that onn two movies back-to-back, a production company had tried to change West’s project, a fact that rendered him even more protective by his own admission.

Did you know that while shooting the movie, the crew referred to it by the title of the House? The fact that they were using a nearby church to stock their equipment was the source of this. Still, this caution didn’t prevent strange events from happening.

One of the actresses was very involved in spiritualism and it was not rare for the lights to go out in the movie. but it’s the Inn they were staying in that really took the cake. According to the locals, the inn was haunted. West states that if he hadn’t been so deeply involved in shooting his movie he probably would’ve been very scared of the motel. I mean, reading through interviews, at the time West really thought his next movie would be a sci fi flick but history tells us that his next production would be The Innkeepers. A movie in which a team of paranormal investigators search through an allegedly haunted inn.

But then again, according to the locals, even the hospital room in which the House of the Devil ending was shot was haunted.

That’s Connecticut for you, says Jocelyn Donahue in the DVD commentary.

Trailer

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Basile Lebret

Basile Lebret

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I write about the history of artmaking, I don’t do reviews.