Trends come and go in horror, as with other film genres. Slashers dominated the 1980’s, while ‘Torture Porn’ and found-footage took turns in the 2000’s. Over the last few years, critics have coined the term ‘elevated horror’ for movies like Midsommar and The Witch. And since the early 2000’s, genre enthusiasts have found their ’horror-fied’ versions of Clerks and Pulp Fiction. At some point in the mid- to late-2000’s, film critics coined the expression, ‘mumblegore’. Examples include Blue Ruins, Creep, The Invitation, and Starry Eyes, among others. At the forefront of this subgenre, writer and director Ti West has been behind some of the genre’s best movies over the last decade. But West’s 2009 House of the Devil is arguably the movie that legitimized ‘mumblegore’ in its early days.
House of the Devil, and ‘Mumblegore’, Prove Less is Sometimes More
In just about every way, The House of the Devil epitomizes ‘mumblegore’. Several film critics have previously coined, defined, and traced what’s been called ‘mumblecore’ and its horror offshoot, ‘mumblegore’. James Hoberman, Dennis Lim, and Andrea Hubert are among those that have already described the ‘mumblecore’ subgenre. Briefly, ‘mumblecore’ has generally been used to describe low-budget indie movies where plot takes a backseat to characters, and naturalistic dialogue and performances are common. Kevin Smith’s Clerks and Robert Linklater’s Before Sunrise are examples of 90’s pre-mumblecore movies. As ‘Torture Porn’ and the remake craze receded, a small subset of horror movies incorporated this dialogue-drive approach alongside slow-burn psychological horror.
It’s this naturalistic approach to the subject matter that delivers the movie’s unnerving horror.
While it’s not necessarily the first ‘mumblegore’ movie, House of the Devil is one early horror movies to successfully adapt the approach. Director Ti West allows his story to develop at a very methodical, organic pace. Much of the early parts of the movie aren’t just dialogue-heavy; they natural conversations between characters. In spite of its ‘babysitter-in-peril story, House of the Devil also eschews common horror scares. Instead, West relies on atmosphere, uneasy conversations, and seemingly benign hints of threat. When there is violence, it’s quick and shocking. The movie’s first death happens so unexpectedly amidst what feels like an innocuous moment that its effect is lasting. It’s this naturalistic approach to the subject matter that delivers the movie’s unnerving horror.
Retro-80’s Horror Vibes Capture Midnight Movie Atmosphere
In the past several or so, we’ve seen a growing nostalgia for 80’s horror. To some extent, this fondness has revolved around that decade’s most popular subgenre – the slasher movie. From Cabin in the Woods to Final Girls to American Horror Story 1984, horror has deconstructed and memorialized slasher tropes. Yet this nostalgia has also embraced the aesthetics of 80’s horror movies. By this, of course, I mean that grainy, VHS experience. Horror fans of a certain age lovingly recall days gone by of walking up and down videostore aisles and browsing the VHS horror covers of movies stalked along the top shelves. Summer of 84, It Follows, Beyond the Gates – all these movies back in a retro 80’s vibe. Meanwhile, Stranger Things has made all things 80’s, including Dungeons and Dragons, cool again.
…Ti West has almost perfectly re-created the look and feel of a movie you would have found on late at night on cable television once upon a time.
From its ‘Satanic panic’ storyline to its opening credits sequence, House of the Devil could just have easily been a straight-to-video release from the mid-80’s. And that’s not a reference to quality. Rather Ti West has almost perfectly re-created the look and feel of a movie you would have found on late at night on cable television once upon a time. Consider it’s also the rare case of matching format to theme. Many of the movies emulating the VHS horror movie era are doing it simply for style’s sake. But West’s format aligns itself to his story. After all the 80’s was the decade that saw a moral panic over the belief that Satanic cults were swarming the countryside. It was a fear that occasionally produced very real tragedies, including the McMartin Preschool case and the West Memphis Three.
House of the Devil a Retro Movie That Looked Forward
Untangling which movies kickstarted a subgenre is generally murky business. Though critics and fans credit John Carpenter’s Halloween for the rise of slashers, other movies – including Black Christmas, Psycho, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre – contributed familiar ingredients. Likewise, Ti West and House of the Devil didn’t invent ‘mumblegore’. Nonetheless, House of the Devil brought together all things that characterize the subgenre. Both its critical acclaim and cult following paved the way for those movies that followed. Arguably, Ari Aster and Robert Egger’s ‘elevated’ horror benefited from Ti West’s work. In fact, ‘elevated’ horror is a misleading label given that prestige horror movies have always existed. These movies may just be the next logical step in ‘mumblegore’.