Ti West’s dramatic approach to starting slow and having his characters wander around in lengthy sequences finally pays off in this near-perfect attempt to recapture a straight-faced eighties slasher film with an occult bent – the lunar eclipse, and a need for human sacrifice.
To be even more precise, the whole production feels like an Italian production shot in some generic U.S. suburban locale with a small American cast. The major starts – Dee Wallace (The Howling), Tom Noonan (The Roost, Manhunter), and Mary Woronov (Eating Raoul, Nomads) – don’t have many scenes (Wallace actually has one, bust she’s marvelous as a local realtor), and just like a period slasher, it’s the unknowns who dominate the screen as ordinary people suddenly pushed into nasty circumstances.
The beauty of House’s plotting is its simplicity as well West’s careful balance of quiet, uneasy scenes, and periodic shocks that don’t feel like disjointed jabs to keep the audience awake.
As reluctant babysitter Samantha, Jocelin Donahue (The Burrowers) is the average, pretty girl next-door struggling to find cash so that she doesn’t have to deal with her roommate's intrusive romantic life. Even though her best friend Megan (Baghead’s Greta Gerwig) is willing to loan deposit money, Samantha wants to prove she can handle whatever hurdle’s in her way, and it’s to Donahue’s credit that Samantha isn’t played as an oversexed nor virginal bimbo we’re just waiting to see die horribly.
West’s dialogue is pure banter, but it has some quiet meaning which, unlike the skeletal script in Trigger Man (2007), expands the girl characters as supportive best friends, and makes their fates quite affective. When Samantha is unable to reach Megan by phone, it’s clear each effort will erode her confidence, and she’ll be aware that Megan’s prophetic statement about ‘leaving if people are too weird’ was dangerously true.
West also makes great use of a huge old house seated in the middle of nowhere for the film’s central location, and he cheats an exercise in scene padding by actually indulging in a music montage that allows both the audience and Samantha to discover the physical boundaries of the house; when the end-chase finally kicks in, we’re well aware how far Samantha must go in order to get the hell out of the huge mansion.
There’s also an amusing shock that brings her solo dancing to an abrupt halt, and marks the film’s rapid acceleration into full thriller mode: as she twists and jumps around like a pogo-stick, listening to her genuine Sony Walkman, Samantha knocks over a rare vase, and that oh-shit moment is arguably more unsettling than any of the film’s gore because it’s a classic moment where a teen (in this case, a youth) did a dumb bad thing, and the fear of explaining how the vase was broken to adults is more uncomfortable that cadavers missing eyes and whole faces.
There are plenty of eerie angles where Samantha shouldn’t but does venture, investigating unlocked rooms and private spots, and Jeff Grace’s minimal score slowly builds from a two-note motif towards some chilling orchestral material reminiscent of his terrifying cello-from-hell score, The Roost.
The soundtrack is a great balance of silence, quiet score, and a few period songs (best use of the Fixx’s “One Thing Leads to Another” ever), and the title sequences are very evocative of vintage slashers, with freeze frames, non-drop shadow text and retro fonts. The New Wave instrumental starts the film on a perfect tone of melancholy, and matches Samantha’s quiet desperation in balancing personal foibles while trapped on a banal university campus.
There’s really only one major quibble with the film, and that’s a specific point where Samantha could and should have grabbed a certain something during her struggle to evade her tormentors, but of course that would’ve ended the film too soon, and we never would’ve learned the precise reason the eccentric wealthy couple need Samantha, nor reached the somewhat preposterously ironic finale.
Great fun, especially in a big dark room.
Ti West’s other films include The Roost (2005), Trigger Man (2007), and Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever (2009).
An interview with composer Jeff Grace is also available.
© 2009 Mark R. Hasan