Ti West: Burgeoning Master of Subtle Horror
Post by Billy Russell
One of the freshest directors working in horror movies these days is Ti West. His movies are unique in that he cherishes suspense almost as much as a pay-off. It’s refreshing to see a filmmaker take pride in fear-making and not just the amount of blood that can feasibly be made to spill across the screen.
His new movie, The Sacrament, is due out in early 2014 and is produced by Eli Roth. The plot concerns a cult not unlike the tragedy at Jonestown, which The Ghost Diaries recently wrote about. It sounds exciting and if you’re unfamiliar with Ti West’s body of work, here is a place to start.
The Roost (2005)
The plot of The Roost doesn’t sound like much at first glance. But many times, a movie’s strength isn’t so much in what it’s about, but how the story is told. What we have here is familiar. Four friends on their way to a wedding, leaving Halloween night (of course), get into a car accident and must seek help to be on their way again. Things seem simple enough, until they are attacked by what appear to be rabid bats. The bats attack, and kill, a friendly police officer, and our four friends are stranded inside a barn, terrified, and clueless about what to do. Then, things get really icky when the cop gets up again. You see, the bats are spreading a zombie disease through their bites and no one is safe.
The story is framed as though you’re watching a late night, local access television show, complete with bad sets, black and white video, and a hammy host who delights in the horrors. The host is played with much glee by a phenomenal Tom Noonan, and the rest of the cast is unknown, but skilled. This movie gave Ti West a chance to play with elements that would become his trademarks: long stretches of silence with subtle payoffs and visual tricks and an obsession with toying with the audience.
Given how low budget The Roost was, the bat effects—which I assume were CGI—don’t look bad at all.
Trigger Man (2007)
In so many ways, Trigger Man feels more like it should have been Ti West’s first movie over The Roost. His plotting is in play, his modus operandi for how to deliver jolts and surprises are much the same, but it’s not as refined as The Roost. It is, dare I say…boring. The movie is not a total loss and strikes me as something of an interesting failure. Trigger Man has a lot of ideas and the last twenty minutes are just spectacular, but as a feature length movie, it doesn’t quite work as well as I’d hoped it would.
While on a hunting trip and out in the beauty of the woods, a group of friends are being stalked and picked off by a sniper. Once the action is introduced, the suspense never lets up. It’s just that it takes a very, very long time to get there, and the movie is filmed in a sort of obnoxious mumble-core style, with lines of dialogue punctuated by unnecessary, jerky zooms and unflattering video. Still, as an experiment about making a film with a micro-budget, it’s worth seeking out. And I can’t say enough about how much I enjoyed the ending.
Cabin Fever 2 (2009)
Ti West has since disowned Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever because the movie was effectively wrested from his control, certain sequences were re-shot and the whole thing edited without his approval as director. He has plenty to say about it online and it’s impossible to argue with him on why he hates it so much.
But, can he argue with me on why I love it so much? Okay, it’s not a great movie, but it’s charming in how disgusting it becomes. Its lows reach new highs and the level of depravity that Cabin Fever 2 plumbs is almost genius sometimes. My favorite gag involves a stream of urine into a punch bowl and that’s the least nauseating thing that happens in that scene.
The action takes place at prom, so all the nastiness of the Eli Roth’s first movie is transplanted into a setting that everyone remembers as being special and romantic. A disgusting horror/comedy at prom wouldn’t be complete without a miscarriage scene (he seemed to be developing a theme with that, as with his The ABC’s of Death short).
I just can’t hate any movie that made room for a small role for Mark Borchardt.
The House of the Devil (2009)
Released the same year as Cabin Fever 2, but couldn’t be any different in tone, execution or anything else. The House of the Devil is a slow-burning masterpiece. This was the first movie of Ti West’s I had seen at the time it came out and it was like watching an old pro show off his skills for creating tension from the mundane and being kind of a show off while doing it. I think that it’s a fun, masterful movie and a great place to start if you’re unfamiliar with the director’s career.
The cast is outstanding to watch. Dee Wallace is great, as always. Tom Noonan shows up again and the thing he can do to put viewers ill at ease is so simple, but it’s outstanding. Mary Woronov, of all those amazing Paul Bartel movies, owns every scene she’s in. Greta Gerwig shows up as the “comic relief”, the kooky friend, but she is–unlike most comic relief characters–actually really funny and has an amazing time in the role.
And, of course, Jocelin Donahue is the star of The House of the Devil. I’m pretty sure if the entire movie was just her dancing to The Fixx’s “One Thing Leads to Another” it’d win every award ever created from the Nobel to an Oscar to a Pulitzer (“Brilliant!” they’d all say). She is excellent as the lead, bringing a beauty and a grace to the role. Whatever happens, you need to love the star and she does a great job at remaining sympathetic even when she’s acting like a typical idiot in a horror movie.
The ending feels a bit rushed, but that’s only a minor gripe in an otherwise masterful exercise in subtle horror.
The Innkeepers (2011)
In a weird way, The Innkeepers reminds me of a movie that David Gordon Green might have directed, with the way this movie adroitly handles its many emotional levels without feeling like there’s a huge tonal shift going on. Many scenes will be funny, and then scary with sadness underneath, and it never feels like one element of that scene is shoe-horned, it feels like an organic growth from one situation to another. Life is oftentimes funny and we use humor to battle the doldrums that accompany our jobs. It never felt like this movie was being funny for the sake of being funny, to make a zany little movie with a horrifying ending—it was funny because our main characters are stuck in a boring job and they have to find ways to amuse themselves. If you’ve ever worked at a hotel, you know how it is.
Our two heroes, played by Sara Paxton and Pat Healy, are at front desk duty of a famously haunted hotel, which will be closing its doors for good. It is the end of an era. Business is infrequent at best as the hotel’s owner plans for its closing; the two decide to spend their time ducking work and seeking out the ghosts that made the place such a travel destination for years.
The Innkeepers takes its time building to a climax that is amazing in how scary it is. If you haven’t seen it, I would never give away any of it, but it works on so many different levels. What creates fear in us all is such a mysterious thing, and Ti West knows this, and he manipulates that to such an incredible effect. What is real in those situations? Who can be sure of anything when your adrenaline is pumping and you’re sure the world is crashing in around you?
This is a great Halloween flick. It’s as fun as it is scary and is just another one of Ti West’s great movies–retro films that aren’t obnoxious homages. Don’t miss out on his short in V/H/S–it’s the second one, called Second Honeymoon.