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Friday, August 6, 2010

Virtuosity in the Horror Film

In keeping up with John Kenneth Muir's I took up his recommendation to see the 2009 film The House of the Devil. It streams on Netflix. Couldn't be more convenient. This film is kind of a problem for me. On the plus-side, it is the scariest movie I've ever seen. I give it very high marks for that. On the other hand, it does nothing else for me. This leads to tonight's topic: virtuosity in the horror film.

Technique, skill, virtuosity. All relate to the same thing. Ti West served as the author, director, and editor of the film, and the unity of vision showcases his virtuosity as a filmmaker. Except for the ending, which struck me as a somewhat derivative letdown, a storytelling weakness, West demonstrates his pitch-perfect technique at crafting suspense that scares the pants off me. A couple of shocks early on set up a slow crescendo, as the audience anticipates more of the same but gets no such release. There is no span of easy breathing.

No doubt, West is a master of suspense. His technique for serving it up is unparalleled in anything I've seen before.

Why doesn't this make a good movie?

Virtuosity is a tough thing. As a guitar player, I've lived in a musical culture with factional relationships to virtuosity. To some, the virtuoso is the highest hero, the fastest, most technically proficient of players (shredders). Others decry virtuosity, arguing that shredding lacks depth and gets in the way of playing with feeling. Shredders respond that "feel" players are bitter about being slow.

I'll say this: in any endeavor, virtuosity alone doesn't cut it. Musical virtuosity can be exceedingly boring, or it can be entertaining but lacking substance. West's film, I think, is wonderfully entertaining, but does lack undercurrent. Every time I see a film with a thought-provoking premise wrapped in a botched execution, I will recall this film and wish that West had helmed the thinker instead.

This post relates directly to another from 6-29-10, "Endings: strong, weak, or immaterial." The ending/plot isn't really related to the best aspects of the film. I wish it had been about something else. As rewarding as the suspense play is, I wish it was grafted onto something stronger.

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