Devil in the details

The horror film of the year feels unearthed from 1982. Its 29-year-old director is a throwback too.

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Maybe you remember that babysitter: smart, curious, wore a lot of denim. She even did her homework when you weren’t being such a brat. Yet even though you felt safe (and your home wasn’t a sanctuary for satanists), things sure creaked when the wind picked up, and the evenings got dark earlier.

“People were lonely in a way that we aren’t now,” says Jocelin Donahue, 27, the star of The House of the Devil, a retro-styled indie horror movie of unusual poise, shot mostly in one manse in rural Connecticut. “We weren’t tethered to cell phones; it was before MTV, before the Internet.” Donahue, a former Levi’s model and walk-on talent, plays Samantha, a coolheaded college student desperate for quick cash. Against her better judgment, she takes a night of watch work—but the baby turns out to be something else. Even though the actor’s own memories of the 1980s are limited to My Little Pony and Strawberry Shortcake (“I’m kind of squeamish about blood”), she speaks with an authority that indicates a lot of research: Halloween, The Changeling, even Suspiria.

Ti West, the movie’s Kubrickian writer, director and editor, would have it no other way. “What if I never get to make another film again?” he asks TONY in the lobby of a swank Soho hotel. (He gave Donahue lists of titles to watch.) West is 29. He wears a leather jacket and would probably live on the LES if he didn’t call Los Angeles home. “I have no guarantee that people aren’t going to hate this one. So the only thing I can do is make the film exactly as I want to make it. Anything else is irresponsible.”

Talking to West is a little much. He’s articulate, confident, thinks he’s smarter than everyone else in the room. (This might be the case.) Words like precocious were invented for him. A former film undergrad at the School of Visual Arts—with mentors like Wendy and Lucy’s Kelly Reichardt and director Larry Fessenden—the Delaware-born West has already made three features besides The House of the Devil, dating back to 2005. He’s not afraid to call himself an auteur.

“It’s hard to say it without sounding pompous,” West admits. “But why should I let a director of photography just shoot it the way he wants to, and worry about it later in the editing room? It’s all an extension of the same job.”

Here’s a filmmaker who speaks to the prickly hearts of perfectionists. For West’s latest, inspired by Geraldo-mongered “satanic panic,” the director devised an all-night shooting schedule similar to the closed-off working environments of George Romero’s mall-based Dawn of the Dead and Kubrick’s The Shining.

“Ti likes to feel like we’re the only ones still awake and working on something,” Donahue recalls, saying the strategy was effective in creating intimacy. “He knows what he wants,” volunteers mumblecore queen Greta Gerwig, who has a supporting role as Samantha’s carefree friend Megan. “He talks to his actors the same way he talks to his set designer.” Gerwig’s not being dismissive here, but you can hear the diplomacy: “It was a nice way of working, because when you get it right, you know you’ve made it right for Ti...correctly.” She laughs, knowing how whipped that sounds.

Both actors admit that West’s attention to detail helped immensely. “As soon as I saw myself in the feathered hair, it snapped for me,” Gerwig says. “I loved it. I wanted to stay there. I stole—well, the costumers gave me—a lot of the clothes.” Donahue, meanwhile, was bombarded with an avalanche of photographs of “girls in plaid shirts with wood paneling behind them.” Completely in character, she found herself up for a Walkman-clad dance interlude set to the Fixx’s “One Thing Leads to Another,” a song choice actually written into the script and blasted on set. “The dance just came out of me,” she says, practically blushing over the phone. “I was bopping around all night.”

Nostalgia trip? West chafes at the suggestion. “I think the word homage gets thrown around more than I’m totally comfortable with,” he says. “I’m trying not to be tongue in cheek.” Apart from a freeze-frame or two, he’s succeeded. “I’m not doing this to be cool, like Grindhouse or something. This isn’t a parody. It’s a lifestyle for me, making these small films, touring with them.” West has defended his labor of love from producers’ edits, even going as far as souring its Tribeca premiere with some notorious bitching. (All three and half minutes of footage were restored.) “That wasn’t so much an aha vindication as a realization: This is the way it’s supposed to be,” West says of the clash. “I felt they were making a mistake. I get really stubborn about things.” He sounds like the brat and the babysitter.

The House of the Devil opens Fri 30.

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