Interview: Jocelin Donahue on THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL

Ti West’s breakout horror flicker, The House of the Devil, came as if out of nowhere and made a real impression on me. The cinematography, set design, costumes and storyline might have proudly invoked the era when the likes of Lucio Fulci and others gave audiences the willies with their violent and grotesque celluloid nightmares, but it did more than repackage old thrills for new eyes - West stood out as a director to keep an eye on and who wasn't merely interested in riding a then 'chic' Grindhouse wave. It's very true, as other critics have noted, that West has emerged as the classicist of the US 'mumblegore' or Horror New Wave scene.
This interview with actress Jocelin Donahue, which took place in March 2010, if memory serves me well (it probably doesn’t), was conducted for an old – and now defunct – website. If you have never seen The House of the Devil then get thee to Lovefilm, Netflix or Amazon! (Crikey, it feels totally sad there's hardly any video stores left any more.) The film is terrifying! Gorehounds, too, will jump for joy at the sight of indie queen Greta Gerwig having her face blown off by a shotgun blast.

Building creeping fear from an ordinary scenario – a college student babysits for extra cash to put a deposit on a new place – the invasion of the supernatural and West's handling of high tension made The House of the Devil a truly nerve-shredding experience, for me.

Thanks to the PR folk at Way to Blue (I think!), I was able to grab fifteen minutes over the telephone with Miss Donahue (she looks a little bit like Jessica Harper from Suspiria, I think) and she was totally delightful. What has she done since? Well, not a lot really. But IMDB does have her in the cast list for Terrence Malick's Knight of Cups (so that's pretty neat).

Horror fans might have spied her as the ‘Young Lorraine’ in James Wan’s very recent Insidious: Chapter 2. In fact, it was her cropping up in that film which got me to thinking about re-publishing this old interview. I say ‘old’, but it was just about four years ago.

In that relatively short time, however, Ti West has announced himself as a major new voice in genre cinema. The Innkeepers was fantastic – even if sticking to old-school frights – and The Sacrament (due later this year) worked as a departure (the plot isn’t focused on the supernatural) and yet further established the director’s exciting credentials. Some complained about his entry into The ABCs Of Death, but it didn’t particularly offend me … it felt more like bad taste joke than anything to get riled up about.

What was your initial reaction upon reading the script?

Donahue: For me it was like a breath of fresh air. I read a lot of horror scripts … it’s a lot of what gets produced in Hollywood and it was really special. The first time I met with Ti West, I could tell how serious he was about making an authentic film. Of course it’s a throwback, but it’s really classic storytelling and that’s not something I read very often.

How did he describe his ideas and plans?

Well, it’s interesting because the dialogue is pretty sparse and so the script itself was very descriptive and when I talked to Ti, he was immediately telling me how it would look. He had a lot of old pictures from the 1980s and turned me on to a lot of classic horror films that I hadn’t seen. It was about the atmosphere and mood that he was trying to create. We talked about the relationship with Samantha’s friend and how she’s this normal girl trying to get over her situation and trying to figure out where she is in life and that was something that also attracted me to the script. She’s such a real character.

Were you ever concerned about carrying the movie? For long stretches, your character is all alone and walking around this grand spooky house.

Yeah, at first I was and I thought about that. This was my first lead role in a film and it was a daunting experience, but Ti created this atmosphere on set that was really supportive and everyone was so creative and a really good vibe on set. Honestly, once I got there I felt really comfortable. It was shot in Connecticut, where I grew up, so I felt like I was in familiar surroundings.

Did you see any particular horror films to prepare for the role?

Yes. I didn’t know too much about classic horror when I started working on this and one of the perks of my job was to sit down and watch all these films as research. So I’ve seen Rosemary’s Baby, The Tenant, Repulsion…the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre – which I’d never seen – Halloween, The Changeling with George C. Scott, [which is] one of Ti’s favourites, which is a really amazing film. Don’t Look Now, Suspiria, all those European horror films. It was fun I got to watch a lot of movies.

Talking of Suspiria, there’s a vague resemblance between yourself and Jessica Harper in Agrento’s movie. Was that deliberate, on the part of you being cast, or merely coincidental?

I don’t think it’s specific, but it is interesting how there’s all these brunette girls from that era. You know, Karen Allen, Jacqueline Smith, all those skinny brunettes in these movies – it was probably part of the reason Ti cast me! But once we were working on it wasn’t really … even those we watched the movies it wasn’t specific, just more trying to capture the mood of the film.

Have you watched the film with an audience?

Yes. Actually the first time I saw the film was with an audience, which was kind of sadistic on Ti’s part. I’d never seen it and then the first time I saw it was at the Tribeca Film Festival and so my entire family and friends were there and a whole audience. It was nerve-wracking but really fun to see people’s reactions and, you know, [see] the entire audience jumping. It’s very cool to see people’s reactions.

Do you think the film will stop a whole generation of teenagers from babysitting ever again?

Of course! My little cousin was in the audience and she's fifteen. I called her and said, 'I know you’re never going to babysit again, but it’s not the 1980s and you have a cellphone.'

Tom Noonan, your co-star, always plays psychos and freaky characters in the movies … what’s he like in real life?

He’s definitely a character and I think he knows his reputation and likes to play off of it. Once you get to know him he’s super sweet. His character in the film is so creepy, but gentle at the same time, and it’s almost like he wants to tell the truth but he’s also a Satanist!

Given the film’s ending, do you think a sequel is likely?

I know, I know. I don’t think Ti wants to do a sequel, but people ask because of the final little twist at the end, but I don’t know. There’s definitely room for it, but I don’t know if Ti would want to do that.

You’ve appeared in two horror films now, are you looking at becoming a new “Scream Queen” or will you do other stuff?

We’ll see what happens. I don’t have any opposition to it. I’ve been lucky so far that the ones I’ve worked on have well received, and of course, that’s what you want as an actor…you’re looking for a good role and story. These art flick/horror movies are great and I’m totally not opposed.

Images 2 & 4 taken from the Magnet Release Press Kit. All rights reserved.