Iconic horror, horror that lasts, is the sum of excellence. There are unforgettable scores (Halloween, Jaws) and uncompromising directors (Night of the Living Dead, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre). Stunning performances (The Exorcist) and haunting cinematography (The Shining). Any two together makes a memorable film. All of them combined make a masterpiece.
There have been many long-running, career-defining relationships between directors and cinematographers. When you think of David Fincher, a certain aesthetic comes to mind: dark, de-saturated, atmospheric, cool, and melancholy. You think of Fight Club, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl, and The Social Network. Fincher’s oeuvre-defining films. The common link? Jeff Cronenweth as cinematographer. There’s Stephen Spielberg and Janusz Kamiński (Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List). The Coen Brothers and Roger Deakins.
Then there’s Ti West and Eliot Rockett, and The House of the Devil.
Few cinematic pairings compliment each other so well. West’s obsessive attention to detail comes out in the exploring, voyeuristic eye of Rockett’s long tracking shots. West’s love of slow-burning dread smolders at the edges of Rockett’s wide-angle lenses.
The duo have collaborated on two other films. The Innkeepers (2011) is more moody, richly-spun gold: further evidence of the creative synergy between the two. Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever (2009) is a different story. The film was re-cut and re-shot so extensively by the producers that West went so far as to request his name be taken off the project. His request was denied, but there’s none of the ambience or richness of West and Rockett’s other pairings. The final effect is more like kids trying to re-cut a Kubrick film into an MTV music video.
Until their next collaboration, however, The House of the Devil stands as their masterwork. It’s been loved and lauded and appreciated by horror fans. (Listen to Nightmare on Film Street EPISODE 10 for Jon and Kim’s review and head-to-head with The Innkeepers.) It’s a film worth examining in-depth and at length. So let’s give The House of the Devil its due, and dig deep into the exceptional ingredient that transforms this simple little throwback indie into one of the great horror films of the modern era: the cinematography of Eliot Rockett.
If you aren’t familiar with cinematography, don’t worry. The House of the Devil is a perfect introduction to it, and I’ll explain everything as we go. For now, think of cinematography as everything responsible for the “look” of a film. Its visual impact. Camera movement, shot composition, lens choice: these are the tools of the cinematographer. Eliot Rockett has them all close to hand.
Let It Roll
In lesser hands, the moving-camera work in The House of the Devil could come across as gimmicky. Instead, in combination with West’s patient pacing and Rockett’s sense of space, the complicated camera work yields some of the most impressive shots in modern cinema. Which is ironic, since the techniques Rockett employs are pure 80s. Namely, zooms, pans and tracking shots.
Some quick definitions. A “zoom” is a shot that moves in on a subject by adjusting the lens, while the camera stays put. A “pan” is a shot that moves smoothly in one direction, usually horizontally. A “tracking shot” follows a subject.
What makes these particular tools so effective in Rockett’s hands is that he often uses them in combination, in one continuous shot. This is what sets him apart from lesser lens-slingers. The trend in filmmaking today is to present a series of short shots and quick cuts, ostensibly so the eye doesn’t get bored. What Rockett and West understand is that when you present a viewer with a collage of short shots and quick cuts, you show them a story.
When you show them long, unbroken shots of complex spaces, with people moving around inside them, they start to feel as though you’re showing them real life. It’s after the opening credit sequence, when Sam first sees the advertisement for the babysitting job, that we first get the sense that this is the real world. Look at this example:
We’re not just following the protagonist around. We’re not just watching a story. This extended, complex shot establishes the dynamic for the viewer: we’re watching a world, and how Sam interacts with it.
The long takes really shine, however, as Sam explores the House. These are the scenes where Rockett’s talent for capturing a space is best utilized. The first time Sam goes upstairs, we get a high, wide-angle shot that captures the stairs, the front door, the entryway, and some of the sitting room beyond. Sam stands in the middle of all this, unsure of where to go or what to do next…and we don’t cut away. The film doesn’t feel like it’s on rails, headed in one direction. It isn’t inevitable that she’s going into the basement (she never does). She could go anywhere: Rockett has shown us the space, and West lets Sam explore it.
Rockett’s brilliance is letting her do it without us, sometimes. At one point, Sam goes into the office, sits in a chair, gets up, and goes out again. But we don’t. The camera stays on the office chair for a long time after Sam leaves. Later, Sam wanders around the ground floor, exploring. We watch from the living room, in a wide shot which captures most of two rooms. Sam walks out of sight for incredibly long stretches of time, but the camera makes no move to follow her. It doesn’t need to. The camera has its subject: the house itself. A tenet of creating a sense of realism in fiction is that the audience should believe that the characters have lives outside of what we see: they continue to exist when we’re not looking at them.
These scenes establish that the House is a character we should be paying attention to, and it goes on when Sam isn’t paying attention to it. We start to wonder what else is happening in the House, while we’re not looking.
Framing the House of the Devil
The fact that The House of the Devil can sustain a feeling of claustrophobic tension for over an hour is impressive.
It’s even more impressive when you realize that most of the settings and spaces we see are actually expansive. Samantha spends much of the beginning of the film outdoors. The interior spaces we see her in (the house she’s renting, the dormitory, the titular House) are all huge, and yet there’s a constant sense that Samantha is being hunted into a corner. That she’s running out of room. That she needs to get out. That something is closing in.
You can thank Eliot Rockett’s sinister framing for your ulcer.
“Framing” is part of composing a shot. Basically, it’s the cinematographer deciding what they want to capture on film, from what angle, height, and location in the space. Deciding what spatial dynamics to build in a shot or scene.
Rockett decided to build a series of oppressive “houses.”
Though Samantha has a lot of room to move around in, Rockett is careful to keep her framed in smaller spaces within the frame. Take the first shot of the film, for example. We’re in a large space (the bottom floor of a house), with at least three rooms. Samantha is standing in the furthest of those rooms, with all that space between her and the viewer…and Rocket still achieves a sense of increasing oppression by framing her inside two doorways. The first time we see Samantha, she is (visually) inside a box inside a box. All the space in the world doesn’t matter, because the subject of that opening shot, our protagonist, is hemmed in on all sides and smothered in darkness. Visually buried alive on a bright, sunny fall day.
(While not strictly “cinematography,” this first shot is also notable for its use of “liminal space.” In literary and film criticism and analysis, doorways and windows are “spaces between spaces,” often used metaphorically to represent a character on the boundary between the world she knows and one unfamiliar and often hostile or frightening. In horror, they often appear at the moment when a character moves from the safety of the Real World into the Supernatural. Looking through two doorways and out through the crack in a curtained window: coincidence? I think not.)
The visual motif continues as the credit sequence progresses. Sam finds herself hemmed in by light poles and dormitory walls that dominate nearly half the frame.
As Sam and Megan drive out to the titular House, rather than opting for head-height back-and-forth shots to capture the girls’ conversation, Rockett opts for low-angle shots up and out the window. In the nighttime, there’s no depth to the shots. Just the bare trees like bones in the blackness, lit by stark white headlights. Their conversation is innocent enough. It’s just that Rockett has forced it into a coffin with his claustrophobic framing.
Speaking of Megan’s car: part of what makes her death-by-headshot in the cemetery such a powerful moment is the way the sequence is framed. While we’re in an expansive cemetery, the camera stays tight on Megan and Victor. Mostly, we stay in the confines of the car with Megan. Even the actual headshot is only seen in the confines of the car (even though the special effects would have been easier to hide with a wider shot). The suddenness with which Victor shoots Megan is surprising, but what’s really shocking and horrifying about the scene is that we’re in an enclosed space with a gunshot and a human head exploding. All that sound and fury, the bang and the blood: Rockett gives us no distance to intellectualize it. He traps us in the car with nowhere to go and nowhere else to look.
Back at the house, Sam is boxed in again. But this time, there’s a monster in the box with her. The strong vertical lines of doorways cut the frame down on either side, hemming Sam and Mr. Ulman into a small visual space together. That closeness is no accident. Ulman, played by Tom Noonan, is 6’5”. Sam (Jocelin Donahue) is 5’4”. Given a bigger space to accommodate them, the difference in height would still be remarkable. In Rockett’s claustrophobic framing, the difference is freakish. Ulman looms over her. Again, their conversation is almost inane. Ulman tells her there’s a pizza place nearby. Gives her some money. He appears almost pitifully forgetful and awkward.
In fact, the first hour of the film plays much the same way, as Nick Dawson notes in his interview with Ti West about The House of the Devil in Filmmaker Magazine:
As in Trigger Man, West’s strategy here is to fashion a film that is normal and even a little mundane in the first half, and then changes gears to become a horror movie for the second half.
That said, there’s an undeniable sense of dread that threads its way through those “mundane” scenes. Rockett’s quiet razor carves its way into our subconscious, and cuts out a dark frame for us to watch this world through.
And He Is Us: POV Shots
One of the most effective tools in Rockett’s belt is the Point-of-View Shot (or POV). A POV is a shot in which the camera takes the position of a character’s eyes. Literally, the viewer is seeing what a character is seeing. Rockett’s POVs accentuate much of the slow-burning dread that dominates the first two-thirds of the film.
In fact, the first shot of The House of the Devil is a POV shot. Remember that long, slow zoom through those liminal spaces? (“Doorways,” I think the normies call them.) That shot comes to rest in the doorway right behind Samantha. When Samantha turns, we see that the Landlady is standing in the doorway. The brilliance of that first shot is twofold. First, it immediately establishes the tension of unseen external forces closing in on Samantha. (Literally: we get close enough to touch her before she even knows we’re there).
Second, it’s grounded firmly in the cinematography of the horror movies of the time. The House of the Devil takes place in 1983. John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) opens with an extended POV shot, which puts the viewer in Michael Myers’ head (and behind his first Halloween mask) as he kills his sister. While Friday the 13th (1980), doesn’t strictly open with a POV, the opening sequence features several extended shots from the point of view of that murderous murderess, Pamela Voorhees, as she kills two camp counselors. In a film that presents so careful a facsimile of the 80s, even the cinematography is idiosyncratic to the trends of the time.
Rockett’s references don’t stop there. Later in the film (around 00:53:40, for those of you playing along at home), Samantha hears a noise outside the window and pulls back the curtains to investigate. As she peers into the darkness, the camera pulls away from the window, as though she’s almost caught the viewer looking in. The shot is straight out of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead (1981), where an unknown evil in the woods menaces the kids in the cabin.
Notice anything about the movies Rockett is working with? They were all released before 1983. This is beyond just using cinematographic tools that were in-vogue during the time period The House of the Devil is set in. This is building the House with bricks actually baked back then.
But the POV is no one-note instrument for homage. Right before the climax of the film, when all the lights in the house go out, and Samantha is running away from the shadows in the attic, we get another. This time, though, the eyes we see through are Samantha’s. The camera stumbles and staggers, the focus blurs in and out. We’re living in the land of Dutch Tilt, and we can’t get out.
Combined with short, unsteady shots of Samantha fumbling in the dark, the tension that’s been building the entire film breaks into terror. It’s become more than “I want Samantha to get out of the house,” because Rockett has erased the line between viewer and victim. Now it’s I have to get out of this house. When Samantha falls to the carpet insensate, West cuts to black. A lot of black. 40 seconds of it, in fact, broken only by minimalist flashes of a blood red moon and a candle flame. 40 seconds may not read like a lot on paper, but on film, it’s an absurdly long time.
In the silent blackness of your living room, waiting for some unknown thing to come screaming out at you? It’s an eternity.
In fact, it’s that unknown screaming thing that makes Rockett’s use of POV here so brilliant. What makes the POV so effective earlier in the film is the fact that the menace is a known quantity. A lot of the horror of The House of the Devil is predicated on the viewer knowing more than Samantha. We know that Megan is dead, yet Sam keeps calling. We see a family slaughtered in some satanic ritual. Sam dances the night away. What unnerves us when we look through the eyes of the villain watching Sam is that knowledge. We know she’s in danger, because we are the danger.
But when Sam sees the shadows in the attic, when the power goes out, we’re right there with her. We don’t know what’s in the attic. We don’t know why the power went out. West has given us an edge the whole film, shown us horrible things, but left us with a sense that at least we know what the danger is.
Then he pulls the rug out from under us and plunges us into the unknown.
What Rockett and West do, with one brief, brilliant POV shot, is show us that we’ve been there all along.