Interview: Jocelin Donahue, ‘The House of the Devil’

The House of the Devil, released on DVD here in the UK on March 29th, is cracking horror film from writer/director/editor Ti West, a wonderfully realised tribute the the glory days of late seventies and early eighties horror, and, as Roger Ebert puts it, a lesson in “Hitchcockian suspense”. As I said in my review:

“This is a love letter to the genre from West, a celebration of what makes it good and a valiant effort to bring successful storytelling techniques of days gone by back into the modern fold. Avoiding the overtly ironic kitsch of Tarantino’s weaker moments, The House… is a straightforward, no-nonsense homage from a clearly dedicated fan…. This is a film for connoisseurs. Horror fans rejoice – there’s life in the old dog yet.”

At its core is Jocelin Donahue, following in a long tradition of scream queens as innocent babysitter Sam who unwittingly finds herself caught up in house of satanists. Donahue gives an impressive lead performance, no mean feat when she is pretty much alone on screen for the vast majority of the film. Still a newcomer, she does a terrific job carrying the film and keeps the audience entranced in such a carefully paced and slow burning horror.
I had the opportunity to speak to her on the experience, and despite being 8am on her side of the pond, she was bright, friendly, and forthcoming in her answers. I was surprised to learn that for a horror star, she is not a fan of violence or blood…
Hi Jocelin, thanks for talking to us today. Can I start by saying I loved the film, and I was genuinely spooked by it, which is not something I can say about all horror films these days.
Thank you.
Are you much of a horror fan? Have you seen much of the golden era of horror?
Well, in preparing for this role I did. I have to admit that before that, I kind of avoided horror films, or what I thought of as horror films – these movies from the nineties and noughties, where horror got kind of self-referential and even the characters knew who was going to die first, I wasn’t really interested in. But then Ti [West, director] really put me through the wringer – this is one of the perks of the job, to research all these classic films. I watched all of Polanski’s early stuff, the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the Changeling, all these European-style classic horror movies. So that was really great, and it really changed my idea of what the genre is.
So what was Ti West like to work with as a director? He’s something of a horror geek isn’t he?
(laughs) Well, I think film nerds probably make the best writer-directors, and he definitely is. He’s so, so detail orientated and so specific. He had the script for a while so he really knew what he wanted from it and even in our first meetings we were talking about the atmosphere and the mood, and those were as important as the character and the plot in this film. He’s very sincere, a really great filmmaker.
How was the shoot then? Was the house an actual house or a set?
Yeah, it was a real house, probably built around 1900 or something, in the woods in the northwest corner of Connecticut, which is pretty wild because I actually grew up in Connecticut, so it has some familiar feeling for me. And it was cool – the atmosphere was great, Ti really put together a good crew of young, creative, really hardworking people. For me, as well, being my first lead role, it was a really supportive environment.
Well, that leads me onto my next question – you’re in more or less every scene. Did you feel any pressure, were you nervous at all at the prospect of essentially carrying the film?
You know, before I got the film, I was. It took a while for Ti…we really spent a lot of time getting to know each other first and of course he really had to trust me because the whole film is essentially just one character. So leading up to it and preparing for it, I felt that. But then once I was on set, it was great and I really eased into it and didn’t have the crazy nerves or pressure that I thought I was going to get because I really related to the character, and everyone was really supportive, so it was cool.
How was it working alongside Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov, who play the satanists Mr and Mrs Ulman? They’re kind of legends in the cult movie world.
Yeah, exactly! It was interesting. I probably met Tom the day that we started shooting together, which made the onscreen relationship even more awkward and creepy. I think he knows his reputation, so he likes to play with people a little bit. But they’re both just super sweet and really interesting people. Off-screen it was fun just chatting with them and stuff. When were in scenes, they were definitely on… They definitely made me feel I was in a creepy house with weird satanists.
Did it get claustrophobic? Were you ever actually scared at any point?
You know, the night of the satanic rituals was pretty freaky. Up until then it was really just quiet naturalism where you’re just a fly-on-the-wall, and all of a sudden it turns really psychedelic and weird. That’s what makes it all the more effective – spend time with the character first and then when all the violent horrific stuff happens, it’s all the more scary. So that night was pretty freaky. I had a hard time spending time with people on set afterwards…I kind of had to be by myself! (laughs)
I can quite understand that! What was it like for you to actually watch the film? I imagine it’s quite a different experience on set to the final product with the editing and music added in to the mix.
Yeah, for sure. And since I’m on screen so much while we were shooting I really didn’t see anything. I didn’t see what it would look like. So that was the biggest pleasure for me, to finally see the cinematography…the score was just so amazing, and the sound design – it’s just so atmospheric. That really just adds all these brilliant layers onto this little performance that I tried to give, because, you know, I was trying to underplay it, she’s such a normal character. So I have to tell you, the first time I saw it was at Tribeca Film Festival with an entire audience, including my family and friends, that was nerve-wracking! But it turned out to be a really cool experience.
Have you had a good reaction from the fans? It seems to have been pretty well received from the horror community.
Definitely, and I know how lucky that is, when you do an independent horror movie, you don’t really know if the critics will like it, or if the community will like it. We had a perfect storm, where it was something that the fans were looking for, because it was this throwback to the classic paradigms of horror storytelling. And as for the critics, it seems like something that people liked to write about because it’s also about the trajectory of horror film – something that makes you look at what’s made today and what was different about it back then. It’s been really interesting to watch the reaction, and of course now I have my Google Alerts set up and I can watch in real time what people are saying.
You touched on this earlier, but how do you feel about the current slate of horror films? The “Saw” franchise, for example, is really worlds apart from “The House of the Devil”.
Well…I just…don’t watch them. I can’t watch them. I’m actually squeamish about violence and blood and gore, so those aren’t the films that I particularly like. That’s why I was drawn to this movie, because it’s about the characters and the story first, and the violence and the satanism second. It was a relief to work on this movie.
The ending seemed to suggest the possibility of a sequel. Do you know anything about that? Would you be on board for it?
I don’t know anything about it… I have never heard Ti talk about it; he kind of laughed that question off at a Q&A. I don’t know if it’s on the horizon but if it was with Ti, I would definitely do it again.
Would you consider doing more horror films?
Yeah, for sure. I mean, as an actor you just look for a good story and a good character, and I’ve been lucky with this film, and “The Burrowers” before it, to work on these really languid, artistic horror movies, and I love that. It really gives you some range as an actor too because you’re a normal character in one scene and you’re terrified for your life in the next. It’s an interesting genre and you can do a lot with it. So we’ll see what happens. I’m not sure what my next horror movie will be, but I’m not opposed to the idea.
What have you got lined up for the future, what are you working on next?
Right now, I’m shooting this film, it’s a mafia comedy with Harvey Keitel in it, which is really exciting.
Sounds very different from The House of the Devil
(laughs) Yeah, exactly!
Well, good luck with that, and thanks for taking the time to speak to us today Jocelin.
Thanks so much.

A version of this interview originally appeared on ObssesedWithFilm.com.

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