Halloween Viewing: Let’s Binge Watch Ti West’s Movies!

Published on October 31st, 2014 in: Halloween, Holidays, Horror, Movies |

By Tim Murr

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The House of the Devil, 2009

One thing that drove me away from contemporary horror films back in the mid ‘90s was the lack of artistry, the lack of guts, and the lack of a good story. Discount bin fodder like weak PG-13 big studio efforts and boring sequels to should-have-been-over-by-now ’80s slashers didn’t have me rushing to the theater or the video store. Instead, I stuck to renting older horror films and exploring art house and foreign cinema. This was a rewarding and educational time for me, but it burnt my ass to have nothing available but re-watches of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Suspiria if I wanted to really get my fix of terror.

Fortunately there have been several directors who felt the way I did, contributing towards a resurrection of horror in the last several years. Guys like Eli Roth, James Wan, Scott Derrickson, and Adam Green (to name a few) have done their forefathers proud with some of the most well made, visceral films to hit the multiplexes (or VOD). On an artistic level, horror has never been stronger.

One director who stands out for me is Ti West. More than just straight horror films, West makes meditations on dread. You know what you’re getting into right from the start and then it’s a nerve- wracking waiting game while West drenches you tension. You know The Roost is going to be a late night TV B-movie throwback, that The Innkeepers is about a haunted hotel, and that The Sacrament is about a Jonestown-like religious cult. And you know the bad stuff is coming, but West weaves originality throughout each film along with legitimate scares and twists. And blood, because when the tension finally breaks, it’s generally pretty gory.

I started with The Innkeepers and The House of the Devil and with both films I was completely frustrated with the plodding pace and the long shots with no pay off. I don’t think I’ve talked to and argued with any movie the way I did with The Innkeepers. In fact, I was still trying to decide how I felt about the movie the next day. Ultimately I came to love it, especially after I watched The House of the Devil. Having watched the two films back to back to compare, I got a better sense of West’s style. Between the two films, I jumped five times, which is five more jumps than any other horror movie has gotten out of me since I was a kid.

After that, I was all in. I needed to watch everything this guy had done and I have! And for you Ti West virgins I’ve written an overview/mini-critique of each of his films from The Roost to The Sacrament. I’ve excluded the two short films that come with The Roost DVD and I’m skipping his segment from the first V/H/S, since I have very little love for that film as a whole and I don’t feel like West’s segment was particularly good. Similarly, I passed on The ABCs of Death even though West has a segment in that film.

The Roost, 2005
West wrote and directed his debut about four friends traveling to a wedding who get lost and wind up at a farm where some monstrous bats are turning people into zombies. The film is interrupted by a late-night horror TV show hosted by Tom Noonan (Manhunter). The movie is flawed but fun, and West takes a really silly concept and makes it work, partly by just throwing the viewer into the situation without explanation. He does a good job of building an atmosphere of dread, but the sluggish pace robs The Roost of some of its potential strength. It’s the only time West’s pacing and use of long shots don’t serve the story. Regardless, The Roost is still a pretty good movie and worth seeking out.

Trigger Man, 2007
Supposedly based on a true story, Trigger Man is about three friends on a weekend hunting trip that goes south when they become the hunted. Shot on a handheld video camera, the movie feels like a found footage film, but it’s not. The movie takes forever to start and when it finally does you’re in for several minutes of walking in the woods and only a little bit of dialogue. You get enough of a sense of who the three main characters are, but West keeps the whole thing pretty vague. It’s even vague as to why we should care enough to keep following these three knuckleheads through the woods.

You know that something bad is going to happen, but West drags us through the woods with a shaky camera for so long, I stopped caring and that’s when the movie really starts. As soon as the first shot is fired, that shaky camera suddenly becomes an asset, helping to ramp up the panic, fear, and confusion. Once things calm down again Trigger Man becomes a tense cat and mouse game, with one of the three friends hunting the man who’s hunting them. I give Trigger Man high marks for it’s final act, but it’s an endurance test up until then.

The House of the Devil, 2009
With an established love of long shots and screwing with the audience (and being good at both), West then wrote The House of the Devil. Far more ambitious and professional than his previous efforts, it’s the story of a college student named Samantha who takes a babysitting job. It’s set in the 1980s and right at the beginning of the movie plays up the Satanic Panic from that decade.

Again, West takes his time building the world of The House of the Devil, but also takes more care creating the characters. He mashes up elements from haunted house and slasher films, gives it a very ’80s feel, and still comes out with something fresh and surprising. It’s a legitimately scary movie. As jaded as I am, the jump scares got me and I was on the edge of my seat during the climax. The House of the Devil is my favorite of West’s films.

Cabin Fever 2, 2009
Eli Roth’s debut Cabin Fever was a pretty good film. It was gory, kind of creepy, and overall a fun watch. It had a scrappy charm, especially when so many horror films were coming out with PG-13 ratings and there was not much else to say about them. Cabin Fever 2 had, other than gore, none of its predecessor’s positive attributes. But it’s not West’s fault. The producers did so many re-edits and re-shoots, that CB2 looks and feels nothing like a Ti West film. In fact, West tried to get his name removed from the credits, but failed.

The Innkeepers, 2011
The premise is simple: You have an old New England hotel, with a history of paranormal activity, that’s close to closing down forever. You have two employees working the last weekend who want to record some of this paranormal activity. You have a couple of suspicious guests. And a ghost. GO!

Though I wound up loving it in the end, I still find it a bit too slow. That’s my only complaint. There are good scares, and Sara Paxton and Pat Healy are very likable as the hotel employees. The cinematography and cool color palette are gorgeous. The Innkeepers exemplifies what I mean by “meditations on dread”. To me, it feels somewhat European. It specifically reminds me of Jean Rollins’s The Iron Rose, except, you know, something actually happens in The Innkeepers.

The Sacrament, 2013
Religious cults have been something I’ve had a keen interest in since I got into horror. Jonestown, Manson, Branch Davidians, Heaven’s Gate. . . these groups are endlessly fascinating and frightening. So I was psyched when I saw the first trailer for The Sacrament.

Here, West changes up the found footage schtick a bit by having professional journalists tell the story, rather than scared teenagers running around with cameras for flimsy reasons. This made the overall film much more enjoyable (I’m not a big fan of found footage). Here again, West tells you up front what you’re getting into, goes exactly where he says he’s going, and manages to make a wholly surprising and chilling film about religious exploitation. The movie has a solid cast and a mean third act that just keeps getting more tense and shocking as it barrels toward the end credits. All of this elevates The Sacrament above the standard horror fare.

Next year, West will go into a whole new direction and deliver a western, called In A Valley Of Violence, a revenge thriller set in the 1890s and starring Karen Gillan, Taissa Farmiga, Ethan Hawke, and John Travolta (!?). We don’t get many westerns these days, so once again I’m psyched!

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