TI WEST’S STUDENT WORKS (2001)
As an avid read of independent filmmaking blogs and news sites, I was first exposed to indie horror director Ti West around 2011, when his feature THE INKEEPERS was making the rounds at film festivals. He was praised for his old-fashioned aesthetic, and for making scary movies that were actually artful and high quality.
I became a firm believer in West after watching THE INKEEPERS and finding it to be one of the most energizing horror films I’d seen in years. That impression was further reinforced by watching his 2009 feature THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL and finding it to also be a brilliantly crafted film. As a filmmaker with the grand majority of his career still ahead of him, West may seem an odd choice for a retrospective essay series such as this one.
He really only has a few high-profile features to his name, and even then he hasn’t caused a significantly large ripple in the film community yet. However, with each film he makes, his profile grows a little more, marking him as a director to watch. His commitment to bringing the genre back from the uninspired dregs of such studio horror franchises as the SAW series or PARANORMAL ACTIVITY is both refreshing and promising.
As his career grows, he’ll almost certainly become our preeminent director of scary content, redefining horror for a whole new generation.
Born in Delaware in 1980, West is one of the few working directors that is close to me in age, so thusly, he belongs to my generation of filmmakers: old enough to remember the days of VCRs and video cassettes, but young enough that we’ve always had access to cheap digital video cameras. As such, a lot of us have been making films quite economically from a very early age.
We were also the first generation of filmmakers to directly benefit from online video and the rise of Youtube, which allowed us to distribute our films directly to fans without the need for conventional theatrical releases or film festivals. West’s formative years were no doubt spent watching and re-watching videocassettes of horror classics until the tapes wore out. The fuzzy, lo-fi aesthetic of the format played a huge role in influencing his own.
He studied filmmaking at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, where he found himself under the tutelage of noted indie director Kelly Reichardt (WENDY AND LUCY (2008), MEEK’S CUTOFF (2010)). From her, he learned the value of minimalism, resourcefulness, and conviction of vision.
It was his relationship with Reichardt that led to his internship at Glass Eye Pix, run by director/producer/actor Larry Fessenden. Fessenden had starred in Reichardt’s debut feature RIVER OF GRASS (1994) and had since carved out a niche for himself as a producer of grindhouse genre exploitation films in the vein of Roger Corman. Fessenden took an active interest in his talented young intern, and agreed to executive produce his first few features, bringing West some instant indie cred.
While he was at SVA in 2001, West completed three short works titled PREY, INFESTED, and THE WICKED. PREY appears to be the only of these shorts that is publicly available, so I only have that go off on in exploring West’s first forays behind the camera. PREY concerns two young men who are chased through snowy woods by a bloodthirsty creature.
It’s a pretty standard horror story, with the bulk of the action focusing on the protagonists evading the unspecified monster. What it lacks in story, PREY makes up for in execution— West’s confidence behind the camera is already apparent.
PREY was shot on 16mm film, as were his other two student shorts, so the film is naturally constrained to a square 4:3 frame. The cinematography by West himself is unadorned, with the young director hand-operating his camera and employing zooms for dramatic effect. He takes a lot of visual cues from THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999), like the woodsy setting and handheld camera shakiness but he also employs his own visual language with the monster, giving its POV an eerie, supernatural feel with a monochrome negative filter.
We only see the Monster in extreme close-ups, its snapping jaws most resembling a wolf. Even then, West knew that the key to effective horror is that our imaginations can conjure up something far scarier than what he could realize on-screen. PREY also shows West’s affinity for immersive sound design, an aspect on which most horror films live or die.
Despite the lo-fi nature of the cinematography, PREY comes off as pretty polished thanks to a high quality sound mix.
In his student films, we can already see West’s defining characteristics emerging. His influences and inspirations are incorporated into his work in the form of old school techniques and suspense. Make no mistake, PREY is very much a student film, much like the subpar shorts I saw in my own days as a film student at Emerson College, but it also has a distinct confidence behind it.
Without being able to see THE WICKED or INFESTED, it’s still clear that West knows what he’s doing, and that he already possesses the skills that will make his feature work stand out from the pack.
THE ROOST (2005)
These days, it’s extremely rare that an internship will lead to a full-time job. It’s rarer still, as an aspiring filmmaker, for an internship to lead directly to your first professional directing effort. However, that’s what happened with director Ti West, who interned under producer/actor Larry Fessenden’s Glass Eye Pix.
Fessenden was impressed by West’s student films, so when West pitched him a feature idea about a pack of killer bats called THE ROOST, Fessenden was quick to come onboard as executive producer. Released in 2005 with intentions as a modest, low-budget throwback to cheesy horror films from the 1980’s, THE ROOST exceeded all expectations. West’s confident direction propelled it to a warm reception at various film festivals, effectively launching his career as a feature filmmaker worth watching.
THE ROOST follows four friends driving through dark woods en route to a Halloween wedding, when suddenly a renegade bat surprises them and causes the car to swerve into a ditch. Unable to free the car, the friends set off into the night to search for help. They come across a dilapidated barn and take shelter from the elements, but it’s not long until they discover that they’ve wandered directly into the bats’ roost, and their bite has the power to turn the bitten into bloodthirsty zombies.
One of the film’s peculiar quirks is the use of a framing device that resembles those late-night horror movie presentations introduced by a ghoulish host. West’s fictional show, which he calls Frightmare Theatre, places the macabre host inside of a chintzy, gothic castle and takes time out of THE ROOST’s narrative so that he can crack blackly humorous jokes.
This bookending conceit boasts the film’s one recognizable face, in the form of Tom Noonan (famous for his portrayal of The Tooth Fairy in Michael Mann’s classic MANHUNTER (1986). Noonan is pitch perfect as the droll, Vincent Price-esque Master of Ceremonies, his naturally-gangly physicality adding to the cheesy spookiness on display. Securing the services of Noonan was THE ROOST’s ultimate coup, as his name brought a great deal of legitimacy to West’s efforts.
The cast inside of THE ROOST’s main narrative doesn’t fare as well, unfortunately. West casts a quartet of unknowns (Karl Jacob, Vanessa Horneff, Sean Reid, and Will Horneff) that are most likely friends of his from film school or from local auditions. The characters are standard horror archetypes: the bookish nerd, the sassy girl, the stubborn stoner, and the virtuous alpha male.
Not a lot is required of the actors other than to scream and run on cue, which to be fair, they all do effectively. Otherwise, the performances are wooden and uninspired. There’s a reason why none of them broke out along with West in the wake of the film’s success. On the brighter side, Fessenden himself appears towards the end in a cameo as a tow-truck driver attacked by the flock of bats.
Of the filmmakers in my generation, West is unique in that he mostly shoots on film. Since he’s also shot a feature on video, I don’t think he necessarily prefers film to video, but I do think his old-fashioned aesthetic demands film because video can’t replicate it (at least it couldn’t when THE ROOST was made).
West is a capable cinematographer in his own right, but he’s probably like me in that his shooting on actual film tests the limits of his skills when he’s also directing. The mechanics and mathematic calculations inherent in film is best left to a dedicated cinematographer, so West entrusts the Super 16mm photography to DP Eric Robbins.
The aesthetic of THE ROOST is relatively unadorned, with the majority of camerawork being handheld. Robbins’ lighting setup is low-key, with lurid colors similar to the carnival-esque aesthetic of Rob Zombie’sHOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES (2003). It embraces the lo-fi natures of 16mm film, creating a similar look to the heyday of VHS horror.
The color red is used specifically for effect, popping out of the darkness and flashed in gory freeze frames. The Frighthouse Theatre segment gets its own particular look, with black and white photography filtered to resemble an old TV broadcast. Production Designer David Bell populates the set with loads of cheesy gothic objects and dressing, completing West’s tongue-in-macabre-cheek vision.
West also incorporates storytelling elements whose influence comes from unexpected places, like Michael Haneke’s FUNNY GAMES (1997). Three quarters of the way through the film, the story abruptly ends with the surviving characters giving up and accepting their fate. Noonan’s unhappy host returns, expressing his disapproval of the ending, so he actually rewindsthe film and plays it back to show the alternate, definitive ending. Haneke did the same thing in his film, toying with his audience by presenting false hope only to snatch defeat from the jaws of triumph.
Composer Jeff Grace also received a modest breakout with THE ROOST, having previously assisted Howard Shore in his work on THE LORD OF THE RINGS TRILOGY for Peter Jackson and GANGS OF NEW YORK for Martin Scorsese. He crafts an ominous, discordant suite of cues where shrieking string instruments evoke the terror of killer bats.
He also uses a gothic organ in the Frighmare Theatre scenes that further lends to the intended cheesiness. Diagetically, West incorporates a few underground punk songs into the mix, giving us a little view into his own particular musical tastes. The sound mix as a whole is incredibly strong for a film this low-budget. Graham Reznick serves as the sound designer, turning in what would be the first of many mixes he’d create for West over the years.
THE ROOST immediately differentiates itself from other indie horror films because of its old-school aesthetic. While most directors of our generation are trying to make slick, glossy horror films with digital cameras, West is appropriating the look of a by-gone era and making it his own. There’s a distinct charm in his approach, a palpable soul.
In taking this old-school approach, the evidence of West’s craft and direction becomes more visible. Filmed mainly in West’s native Delaware, THE ROOST is the first appearance of a peculiar signature of West’s, namely that the story revolves around a singular locale. This signature may be borne out of the needs of low-budget indie filmmaking where the locations budget is sorely lacking, but inTHE ROOST, West uses it to his advantage to paint a compelling portrait of the abandoned barn in which our characters take refuge.
THE ROOST is stuffed with references to various non-filmic Halloween-time media traditions, like spooky radio shows and the aforementioned Frightmare Theatre presentation. It’s difficult to tell how much—if any—inspiration is sourced from Zombie’s HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES, which was a similarly old-fashioned horror jaunt that premiered only two years prior to production on THE ROOST.
Knowing their shared affinity for 80’s horror, it’s unlikely that West didn’t like Zombie’s film—which makes the similarities to Zombie’s own debut hard to ignore. For example, both films open with the cheesy, late-night Frightmare Theatre conceit.
THE ROOST leveraged Fessenden’s name to draw attention to itself during its South by Southwest festival premiere. But once West filled out the auditorium, attention shifted directly on him, with several critics and horror blogs naming THE ROOST as one of the best films of the year. Now, THE ROOST isn’t a great film by any stretch of the imagination.
It’s a serviceable entry in the genre, mostly notable for that fact that it is West’s debut. His direction shows the signs of a young filmmaker, frequently indulging in awkward, unnecessary exposition. But with his effective direction of the horror sequences and convincing visual effects, West is able to hit where it really counts. The film was eventually picked up for distribution by Showtime—quite the feat for any aspiring filmmaker. With the success of THE ROOST, West had staked his territory in the genre and established himself as a director to watch.
Director Ti West enjoyed the modest success of his feature debut THE ROOST (2005), but quickly found himself languishing back in the same obscurity as his peers while he was trying to get his next project off the ground. After about two years, West approached his executive producer and mentor Larry Fessenden with an idea for a film that he could shoot down and dirty with little money, about a group of friends hunted by a sniper in the woods.
He pitched it as a subversion of the “hunters become the hunted” subgenre, but made in such a realistic way that the banality of key moments could go by without audiences barely registering. West based his idea off a purportedly true story (I call bullshit), and convinced Fessenden to finance and produce the film.
With $10,000 in hand and seven days to shoot, West ventured once again into the woods of Delaware and shot his second feature, TRIGGER MAN (2007).
The story concerns three old friends who get together and head out of Manhattan for a weekend hunting trips in the woods. We can tell they’re old friends because they’re so stylistically different from each other that the only way they’d be friends is if they went way, way back. Sean (THE ROOST’s Sean Reid) is about to get married and dresses like he just scored a shopping spree from Abercrombie & Fitch.
His friends, Reggie (Reggie Cunningham) and Ray (Ray Sullivan) are still in an adolescent, grungy, punk phase and lead seemingly aimless lives focused on getting drunk, stoned, and laid. What promises to be a relaxing weekend of camping and hunting gives way to terror when the trio is attacked by an unseen sniper that’s been relentlessly stalking them.
Keeping true to his minimalist approach, West keeps his cast at a bare minimum, having them use their actual names as their character names. He once again directs Reid, who previously played the stubborn stoner in THE ROOST, and gives him a character in TRIGGER MAN that’s the polar opposite.
The character of Sean, as played by Reid, is rich, well-groomed/dressed, and is clearly leaving his two old friends behind as he climbs the social ladder of life. This adds a degree of simmering tension with Cunningham and Sullivan, the two greasy punk types. Cunningham emerges as the unlikely protagonist of TRIGGER MAN, making for one of the more unconventional leads in recent memory (what with his unpleasant mullet and, frankly, thuggish countenance).
I took this as another sign of West’s unfettered bravery and confidence in his craft despite his early age. The fact that we come to care about this conventionally un-savory character by the end is perhaps West’s most substantial accomplishment in the entire film. And like THE ROOST, Fessenden himself appears in a cameo at the very end as the sniper’s henchman who ends up on the wrong side of Reggie’s gun barrel.
What’s immediately apparent upon watching TRIGGER MAN is how starkly different it looks compared to THE ROOST– so much so that one could be forgiven for thinking West made the former first as a shoestring feature long before his 2005 breakout. West slimmed down his crew considerably by also acting as the Director Of Photography and shooting on digital video with primarily natural lighting.
He opts for an untreated, unfiltered, inherently “video” aesthetic, letting the natural earth tones of his location dominate his muddy color palette. This allows the bright orange of hunting vests and the visceral crimson of gore to really pop out and jar the audience. West shoots almost entirely handheld, reveling in slow, quiet stretches of observational camerawork that’s only broken by in-camera rack zooms.
The zooms themselves have no motivation or logic behind it, other than making the camera itself a living, breathing participant. It also echoes the visual sensation of acquiring a target through a sniper scope. West chose the forested Delaware location because he grew up in the area, and could secure a singular park permit to shoot anywhere he pleased, thus wringing as much production value as he could out of the concept.
Jeff Grace once again collaborates with West to create the score, crafting an ominous, pulsing energy that propels his ambient soundscapes. It’s an effective and perfectly serviceable score, but nothing truly stand-out. West also peppers in several underground hardcore songs for a punkish vibe that reflects the musical sensibilities of his protagonists.
The unglamorous, amateur nature of West’s video aesthetic is bolstered by Graham Reznick’s accomplished sound design, proving the old age that sound is instrumental in the audience’s perception of a film. If it sounds good, they’re much more adept to watch something that may not be quite up to par, visually.
West’s aesthetic continues to be influenced by the heyday of 1980’s VHS chillers. While utilizing the relatively new medium of video to shoot TRIGGER MAN, his dedication to the old-fashioned ways is reflected in, among other things, the yellow, vintage font of his titles. The action of the story occurs around a singular structure, which is another recurring trope within West’s filmography.
In THE ROOST, it was an abandoned barn, and in TRIGGER MAN it manifests as an abandoned factory in the middle of the woods. Really, the main deviation from West’s style is his decision to shoot on video, as he has shown himself to be a staunch advocate for film-based acquisition as his career has progressed.
West’s second feature turns out to be a taut, surprisingly entertaining little thriller. TRIGGER MAN has a few flaws in logic indicative of a young filmmaker at the helm, like the main character completely not once calling for help despite the working cell phone in his pocket. Such flaws only amount to minor quibbles, and ultimately the film premiered to a warm reception at South by Southwest, further reinforcing West’s reputation as a director of finely-crafted, old-fashioned thrillers.
Soon enough, West found himself in the company of like-minded filmmakers in the SXSW social circle, like mumblecore king Joe Swanberg and splatter master Eli Roth. But it was his friendship with Roth specifically that would lead to his next project—and his first major studio film.
CABIN FEVER 2: SPRING FEVER (2009)
My first job out of college was as an administrative assistant at Lionsgate Entertainment in Santa Monica. On my first day, I had a lot of downtime, so I delved into the script library and, out of pure boredom, chose to read director Eli Roth’s early draft of CABIN FEVER 2: SPRING FEVER. It was as awful as I expected.
I only mention this because it was my experience with Lionsgate and approach to filmmaking that gives me some insight into the subject of this essay. The movies that came out of Lionsgate at the time were juvenile, uninspiring works of commerce whose story elements were coldly calculated by the marketing department to wring the maximum amount of money from fiercely loyal niche groups.
It explains why Lionsgate is such a successful studio- they have a theoretically great business model, but their movies are devoid of soul or any real cultural value. Because of this single-minded drive for profit, a lot of filmmakers get burned when they work with them. It happened to director Ti West when Roth, his friend and the helmer of the first CABIN FEVER in 2002, personally nominated him to direct the sequel and helped to set West up at Lionsgate with his first major studio gig.
Executives loved West’s unconventional take on the concept, which had already seen two rejected screenplays previously, and when shooting began in 2007, he was more or less left to his own devices. But then, something went seriously wrong in the editing stages, and these same executives unhappily ripped the film out of West’s control.
Subsequent re-edits sullied his original vision, so he campaigned to have his name removed from the credits altogether. However, because he wasn’t a member of the DGA, he wasn’t privy to the same Alan Smithee privileges that a more-established director would have. His only other option was to publicly disown the film, so it languished on Lionsgate’s shelf until it was quietly released in 2009 to critical pans and dismal box office performance.
CABIN FEVER 2 takes place immediately after the events of Roth’s original film (which I never saw, so I have no idea what transpired there). The flesh-eating disease upon which the series centers itself around spreads from a rural camp setting to a local private high school. John (Noah Segan) is your typical, nerdy virgin character who wants to ask his crush to the prom.
The only problem is his crush, a girl-next-door type named Cassie (Alexi Wasser), is part of the popular clique and already has a boyfriend. Meanwhile, the skin-eating disease quietly spreads amongst the population until prom night, where it rages fiercely inside the contained school grounds. Now, John must fight to save himself and the girl he likes from a certain, gruesome death that they can’t begin to comprehend.
As far as teen horror goes, the story has been done to death. There’s nothing original for West to play with, so he tries injecting a great deal of humor into the proceedings and embracing the inherent absurdity of his premise.
CABIN FEVER 2 makes no bones about what kind of movie it is: a disposable adolescent gross-out flick. As such, it can skate by with a cast of unknowns to save a couple bucks. I won’t even mention Rider Strong’s presence—he’s in so little of the film he was better off staying home. It’s the first of many red flags in the film, because you know you’re in trouble when the biggest name actor the film has is killed off in the first minute.
As John, Segan is handsome in a geeky sort of way. You could see him being the type of nerdy dude who comes into his own in college, but with this disease running rampant, prospects that he’ll even make it far that look pretty dim. Alexi Wasser plays Cassie, the popular girl with shades of geekiness of her own. The true highlights of this film, however, lie in the supporting cast and cameos.
Michael Bowen plays the toupee’d, disgruntled principal while Mark Borchardt of AMERICAN MOVIE (1999) infamy and 30 ROCK’s Judah Friedlander make memorable appearances. West’s producer and mentor Larry Fessenden shows up as Bill, a tow truck driver whose graphic death in a diner alerts the townspeople to the presence of the flesh-eating disease.
CABIN FEVER 2 marks the first of several collaborations between West and cinematographer Eliot Rockett. West takes the opportunity of major studio funding to shoot on 35mm film, amplifying his cinematic conceits with the panoramic 2.35:1 aspect ratio. It’s hard to tell who exactly is responsible, but the visual presentation of CABIN FEVER 2 is seriously messed up.
I can’t tell if the color timing, with its super-crushed blacks and gauzy cream highlights, is intentional or not. The overall color palette skews towards warm autumnal colors, which seems odd given the film is supposed to take place in the spring. But the true elephant in the room is the warped nature of the image, which looks like it stems from either a strange spherical aberration on the camera lens or editor Janice Hampton seriously screwed up her media management in the cutting room. There’s no way it’s intentional.
Ultimately, CABIN FEVER 2 just might be the most vile–looking film I’ve ever seen. I get that it’s supposed to be exaggerated body horror, but it goes too far several times. I tend to have an iron stomach when it comes to gore, but even I was left feeling queasy for hours afterwards. I simply have no desire to ever revisit this film– its aesthetic was thatoppressively unpleasant. I don’t blame this on West’s participation, or even Rockett’s, but rather on Lionsgate for unceremoniously dumping the film in post without the resources it truly needed.
The music is even more atrocious than the visuals. For whatever reason (probably Lionsgate again), West foregoes Jeff Grace’s services in favor of Ryan Shore, who crafts an uninspired industrial score. Its shortcomings are propped up by heavy source cue usage that draws from the psychobilly genre. It might have seemed a bold, edgy move at the time but the result is an awful sonic experience.
I can’t imagine too many copies of the soundtrack were sold.
Because CABIN FEVER 2 is such an obvious chop job, it’s hard to tell which elements of the film bear West’s mark. There are a few obvious ones, such as the use of handheld POV shots, and the fact that the story is built around a singular location (the school). There’s still something of an old-fashioned 80’s aesthetic, but it’s much more downplayed (most likely as a result of Lionsgate’s meddling).
One of the film’s only bright spots are a pair of animated bookend sequences that render the uncontrollable spread of the virus in a comedic way.
CABIN FEVER 2’s utter failure on all fronts is easily the lowest point of West’s career so far. The satisfaction of working on his first major studio film was replaced with the disappointment of having it taken away, shelved for years, and ultimately dumped by the same uncaring entity that hired him in the first place. Still, it was a valuable learning experience for the young director.
Whereas most directors would retreat into the relative safety of working within their wheelhouse, West instead doubled down on his desire to work in the independent realm and forego safety altogether.
THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL (2009)
Every week, it seems like a handful of new horror films hit store shelves, coming seemingly from nowhere and looking like complete and utter garbage. The market is literally flooded with these derivative shlock films, but why? A staggering majority of independent filmmakers have clued into the fact that horror films are proportionally higher sellers than other genres.
It’s a genre where quality doesn’t matter, which explains why a horror film that looks like it was made by the high school AV club would be bought and distributed by boutique labels while a high-quality dramatic film would be left behind like a redheaded kid at an orphanage. A lot of these films are styled after current genre trends like “torture porn”, or “found-footage”, and as such, they are quick to fall out of style and thus languish in eternal obscurity. In other words, these films are meant to be disposable entertainment, nothing more.
But director Ti West doesn’t his work to be seen as “disposable”. He wants his films to stand the test of time and scare generation after generation of cinephiles, and his intentions of timelessness are evident in his work. After getting burned by studio meddling with his third feature CABIN FEVER 2: SPRING FEVER, West was back in the independent realm and found he needed to do something really special to distinguish himself from all the product that was over saturating the indie horror market.
But rather than embrace current trends, West decided to stay true to his character and tapped into his nostalgia for the old-school horror films of the early 1980’s—a nostalgia he was surprised to find was shared by a great many horror aficionados. His resulting vision, 2009’s THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, was a hell of a comeback after the disappointment of CABIN FEVER 2. It’s easily West’s best film, and arguably his masterpiece.
The time is circa 1983. The place is rural Connecticut. Samantha (Joceline Donahue) is a college co-ed who is looking for her first apartment so she can escape an oppressive dorm environment. She scores her dream pad, but her joy turns to anxiousness when she remembers she doesn’t have the money to afford it. She sets about looking for a job, eventually finding one as a babysitter.
She travels out to a big house in the woods with her friend Megan (Greta Gerwig), and despite both of their misgivings about the situation, the owner’s offer of $400 for one night of work is too much for Sam to pass up. So she musters up the courage to hang out in this huge house all alone, but as she explores the dark corridors to stave off her boredom, she uncovers clues that suggest she just might be dealing with a murderous cult of Satanists intent on offering her up as the mother of the devil’s child.
West is lucky in that his inspired casting choices were fully onboard with an admittedly risky conceit. As the sweet and virginal Samantha, Donahue is a great find—her subdued, involving performance suggests that she’ll one day be a huge star in her own right. When someone can pull off the high-waisted mom jeans look and actually make it look good, you know you’ve found something special.
She has to carry the weight of the film, and she does so effortlessly.
After Tom Noonan’s campy appearance in West’s debut film, THE ROOST (2005), he once again collaborates with the young director and plays the role of Mr. Ulman, the quietly strange owner of the house. Noonan’s physicality is perfect for the role, what with his imposing slenderness and sunken facial features. He’s almost like a walking corpse in a tuxedo.
Mumblecore queen Greta Gerwig rose to attention through her collaborations with the movement’s forefather, Joe Swanberg—himself a friend and colleague of West’s. The role of Sam’s sassy friend Megan is a small one, but Gerwig’s spunky personality is highly memorable. Dee Wallace rounds out the cast as the kindly, maternal Landlady of Sam’s new apartment, but it’s more of a cameo role honoring madam’s rich legacy within the horror genre.
Eliot Rockett returns as the cinematographer, proving that West’s experience on CABIN FEVER 2 wasn’t all for naught. The film was shot on Super 16mm film, as West desired to make the film appear as if it was actually shot circa 1983. This meant appropriating camera techniques like slow zooms instead of what would usually be accomplished with a dolly move today.
The image is grainy and lo-fi, using moody intimate light to cast key portions of West’s classically-composed frames into the dark shadows of the house. Colors are mostly subdued, save for pops of crimson blood when things really start going down.
A lot of credit goes to Jade Healy, the production designer, who absolutely nails the period elements. I’ve never seen such a flawless recreation of the 1980’s, right down to the feathered hair and mom jeans. THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL absolutely succeeds in convincing audiences that it is a lost film from the VHS format’s heyday.
The score by returning composer Jeff Grace is slow and haunting to match West’s razor-taut, patient pacing. The musical palette is appropriately creepy and moody, using different instruments to create an old-fashioned aesthetic that further enhances our sense of the time period the story takes place in.
There’s a great sequence where West drops The Fixx’s energetic “One Thing Leads To Another” onto the soundtrack and simply lets Donahue spazz out around the house in one last moment of unbridled youth and innocence before the horror truly sets in. Graham Reznick supports Grace’s score with another excellent sound mix. West’s films have placed such a priority on immersive sound design that by this point in West’s career, Reznick has emerged as the young director’s most valuable collaborator.
Obviously, West’s affinity for the 80’s aesthetic conceits run rampant throughout THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL. It serves a very real story sense, in that there was a very real “Satanic panic” in the early 80’s that fueled mainstream paranoia over murderous cults, which informs West’s approach to the film.
However, the 80’s conceit goes one step further in amplifying the suspense because it places the story at a point in time where breakdowns in communication were still possible. With no cell phones or internet, Samantha is truly isolated in the house, which generates that kind of terror that comes with being helpless and alone.
It’s a specific type of terror that you simply can’t get with a story set in our current, always-connected day and age. West furthers the structural aesthetic of 80’s horror filmmaking by mimicking old-fashioned freeze-frame opening titles, right down to the vintage yellow type.
The film bears another of West’s signatures in that it takes place in a singular location. In THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, the locale is a spooky Victorian mansion in the woods—charming and idyllic by day, but instantly foreboding once the sun sets. West also attempts to create something of a contained universe across his work, like the reference to Frightmare Theatre, the late-night horror TV show that Tom Noonan hosted in THE ROOST. In THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, Samantha is watching late night programming on the television via—you guessed it—Frightmare Theatre.
The show’s presentation that night (George A. Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968)) is another instance of West overtly acknowledging his influences and idols. It also helps that he didn’t need to pay licensing fees to use Romero’s footage in the film (thanks, public domain!).
The supreme care that West put into THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL was immediately apparent to audiences when he premiered it at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2009. Praise was so abundant that his association with CABIN FEVER 2 was almost erased entirely before it had even begun (CABIN FEVER 2 actually came out several months after THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, despite being shot two years prior).
His commitment to the 80’s aesthetic extended to the film’s home video release, which featured a very clever promotional release in the VHS format, indulging in our shared nostalgia for the glory days of videocassette horror. If ever a modern film were more perfectly suited to release on an anachronistic format, THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL is it.
Ultimately, THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL is not just a rousing success, but a crucial turning point in West’s career. It’s where he went from rising star to the de-facto horror director in the independent realm. By taking his cues from Kubrick or Polanksi, and not from what was currently selling, West has made an effortlessly smart slice of horror that’s several cuts—nay, slashes– above the rest.
DEAD & LONELY (2009)
With the advent of his career occurring squarely in the middle of the social media age, director Ti West created opportunities for himself by befriending and collaborating with like-minded contemporaries, much like the Film Brat generation had done decades before. The SXSW success of his earlier films THE ROOST (2005) and TRIGGER MAN (2007) led to burgeoning relationships with tastemakers within the Mumblecore movement—most notably Joe Swanberg.
Their friendship paved the way for West using Swanberg’s muse, Greta Gerwig, to great effect in THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL (2009), but it also opened doors and granted access to some of Swanberg’s executive friends at IFC. In a bid to build buzz for the imminent release of THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, West decided to collaborate with IFC on a short web series called DEAD & LONELY (2009).
Released daily during the week leading up to Halloween that year, the series split its story over five separate episodes- “DATE OR DIE”, “MAKING CONTACT”, “SECOND THOUGHTS”, THE DATE PART 1”, and “THE DATE PART 2”. One narrative spans the episodes, telling the story of a lonely, nerdy guy (Justin Rice), who invites a strange girl named Lee (Paige Stark) that he met on the dating site dateordie.net to his home, only to find that he’s just invited a bloodthirsty vampire intent on sucking his blood.
Each big story beat is spaced out so that each episode ends with a little cliffhanger that leads directly into the next story beat.
West’s collaborators on DEAD & LONELY are some of the biggest names in Mumblecore cinema. Swanberg himself serves on the crew, as well as David Lowery, an editor/director in his own right that would later go on to great success at the 2013 Sundance film festival with his feature AIN’T THEM BODIES SAINTS. Justin Rice, of the band Bishop Allen, rose to indie prominence when he starred in MUTAL APPRECTIATION (2005), directed by the founding father of Mumblecore, Andrew Bujalski.
In DEAD & LONELY, Rice doesn’t stray too far from the awkward, nerdy character he usually plays, which is basically just a fictionalized version of himself. Paige Stark plays Lee, the predatory vampire. She’s expectedly eerie in her behavior, but she doesn’t quite pull of the sultry sex appeal that West aims to imbue her character with. Swanberg also provides his voice as an unhelpful friend over the phone, as does Lena Dunham of TINY FURNITURE (2010) fame in the role of Justin’s ex-girlfriend.
West even gives himself a little cameo in the form of a profile photo on Date or Die’s website.
IFC may have produced DEAD & LONELY, but it certainly looks like the burden of funding was shouldered by West. The web series was shot (probably by West himself) on a prosumer DV camera like the kind Mumblecore director Aaron Katz shot his early features DANCE PARTY USA (2006) and QUIET CITY (2007) on.
West throws a black matte over the image in post to approximate a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and the camerawork seems mostly made as up the filmmakers went along. By this, I mean that West composes his shots mainly in extreme close-ups and unmotivated rack zooms— all aesthetic hallmarks of the Mumblecore movement. By appropriating the lo-fi video look of his contemporaries, West shows he is very much a filmmaker of his generation.
Even the film’s location, a dumpy apartment in LA’s Silverlake neighborhood—a hipster mecca and my former (and hopefully future) stomping grounds—reinforces the cultural trappings of this particular indie movement.
West’s regular sound designer Graham Reznick pulls double duty, doing both the mix and the score. He creates a pulsing ambient soundscape, with drums that pump like the rhythm of a heartbeat. The score buzzes under the entirety of the episodes, propelling the story along and sustaining dread where it might otherwise be lost.
The lo-fi look is part of West’s aesthetic, but it doesn’t have the same old-fashioned patina that usually comes with shooting on film. Instead, the digital video format creates something at once both new and disposable, and West is forced to appropriate the style of Mumblecore while applying horror genre conceits to it.
The result is almost a casual, indifferent horror—not truly horrifying but darkly quirky and detached. As West’s first foray into the peculiar, nebulous format of the web series, it generated a healthy amount of buzz on blogs but didn’t make much of a splash beyond that. It was a great way to introduce West to audiences who might otherwise be familiar with him, but the final product probably needed to be of a higher quality to lure people into investing their time in his feature work.
West’s career growth here lies instead on the social side of things, as he strengthened his bonds with the Mumblecore crowd, and used their influence to realize his next round of works in inspiring new dimensions.
THE INNKEEPERS (2011)
After the success of 2009’s THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, director Ti West teamed up once again with his mentor and producing partner Larry Fessenden to realize his vision for an old-fashioned ghost story titled THE INNKEEPERS (2011). He was inspired by a charming, spooky hotel in Connecticut called the Yankee Pedlar Inn, where he purportedly stayed during the production of THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL.
His idea was a return to the haunted-house chillers that he had loved as a kid, the kind that were popular in the 1980’s and didn’t take themselves too seriously. THE INNKEEPERS was the first West film I had the pleasure of seeing on the big screen, and it was maybe the most visceral experience I’ve had watching a horror film in quite a while—I saw it with two other guy friends of mine, and we were literally jumping out of our seats.
When we begin the story, we find the Yankee Pedlar Inn on the eve of it’s closure—the historic old hotel’s glory days are far behind it, and it is slowly being forgotten in the rush of the modern world. Two concierge clerks, Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healey) keep the hotel running, despite the fact that there is nothing to run.
There’s maybe one or two guests staying in the entire building, so they spend their days and nights goofing off and recording their nightly ghost hunts for their paranormal website. For the most part, any paranormal activity seems to have departed with the hotel’s business, but their luck changes when an ex-actress and spiritual mystic named Leanne Rease-Jones (Kelly McGillis) checks in and helps them contact the spirit of a bride who was murdered on the grounds.
Claire and Luke soon get more than they bargained for when the spirits multiply and began to exact punishment for having their slumber disturbed.
West is an unconventional independent filmmaker in that his rise hasn’t necessarily been dependent on casting well-known names and faces. He instead prefers talent that’s well-known to loyal niche groups, such as Tom Noonan or Dee Wallace. With THE INNKEEPERS, his highest-profile performer is Lena Dunham, and she only has a brief cameo as an over-talkative barista.
His leads are unknowns—Paxton is cute and spunky as the nerdy, asthmatic tomboy Claire, and her general physicality is very unconventional for the female lead of a horror film. As her counterpart Luke, Healey is the other kind of nerdy: aimless and aloof. Rounding out West’s cast is McGillis as the acerbic, chain-smoking mystic Leanne Rease-Jones. She brings a somewhat granola gravitas to the role, and helps transition the film from a realistic state of mind towards one that’s open to the presence of the supernatural.
West once again collaborates with cinematographer Elliot Rockett, this time shooting on 35mm film with the 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Because this results in an inherently cinematic, somewhat modern look, West’s old-fashioned aesthetic is instead rooted in his approach to the camerawork.
The film’s obvious influence is Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING (1980), what with its long, slow takes moving down empty hallways and parlors. His movements are indicative of a substantially larger budget, and he utilizes various dolly and steadicam shots to add a classical touch and a sense of high production value.
He supplements this with several handheld POV shots when things get really hairy, which is true to his stylistic roots as a director. He favors wide compositions, with a deep focus that has our eyes constantly scanning the frame in anticipation of a ghost emerging.
Returning production designer Jade Healy doesn’t need to do much in the way of set design, as their real-world location was so moody and evocative to begin with. Rather, she works within the generous confines of the location to reinforce West’s naturalistic, subdued color palette and timeless sensibilities.
The scale of Jeff Grace’s score is expanded to match West’s visual upgrade. He crafts a lavishly orchestral suite of cues that are appropriately creepy and suspenseful, while also playful during several moments to reiterate the several instances of comedic relief that West uses to inject levity into the proceedings. It’s almost something like the spooky score you’d get in an early 90’s horror TV show, like Nickelodeon’s ARE YOU AFRAID OF THE DARK?
Returning sound designer Graham Reznick really outdoes himself this time around, creating an immersive mix that plays to West’s carefully-cultivated sense of creeping dread. When you boot up the film at home, it advises you to play it loud—this should give you a sense of how important the subtle bits & pieces of Reznick’s mix are to the overall experience.
A standout sequence concerns Luke and Claire stalking the back hallways and grand parlor rooms of the Yankee Pedlar while recording Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVPs)—aka voice recordings not present during the time of capture, but manifesting instead out of the white noise of the recording itself and commonly believed to be of supernatural origin.
West effortlessly builds suspense in this sequence with nothing but silence, leaving us hanging on the edge of our seats as we strain to hear whatever the microphone is picking up. It’s a lo-fi, un-showy technique but its use results in some of the spookiest moments I’ve ever experienced in a horror film.
With THE INKEEPERS being West’s fifth feature film, his style has been well-established. An old-fashioned approach guides every decision, typified by a slow, brooding pace and a great deal of importance placed on the sound mix. Even when he’s working with high production values and a contemporary story such as this one, his old-fashioned aesthetic demands that he doesn’t rely on cheap “jump out” scares like modern horror films do.
While he does acknowledge it within THE INNKEEPERS, he appropriates it to make a mockery of audience expectations, fooling us into bracing for a shock scare but continually giving us cinematic blue balls by never delivering (until the very end, that is).
This slow pacing adds an extra dimension of creepiness to his ghosts, which are easily the most viscerally terrifying depictions of apparitions that I’ve seen on-screen. They possess all of the menace with none of the corniness, behaving much like you would expect a malevolent supernatural entity to do.
The other important element of West’s aesthetic is his placing of the story within a singular locale. He creates in his fictionalized Yankee Pedlar Inn an insular world that’s able to block out the cynicism of our everyday reality, and allows us to indulge in superstition and belief in the paranormal. This signature of West’s may have emerged out of indie/no-budget necessity, but he’s truly at his best when he’s guiding us through empty, foreboding architecture.
THE INNKEEPERS is West’s biggest film yet, and its release translated to a significant amount of career exposure for the young director—not just in horror circles but the larger indie world. He always has a home for his pictures at the South By Southwest film festival, but THE INNKEEPERS propelled him to international success for the first time with screenings at Stockholm and Melbourne.
His old-fashioned approach was ironically praised as fresh, probably because the increasingly homogenized horror genre has left fans clamoring for something new, different, and bold. THE INNKEEPERS opened may doors for West professionally, potentially providing a new path back into studio filmmaking that would be more respectful and aware of his considerable talent and vision.
While his next feature has yet to materialize, West has kept himself very busy in the independent world by collaborating with his friends on another time-honored horror genre tradition: the anthology film.
ANTHOLOGY SHORTS (2012)
While THE INNKEEPERS (2011) is director Ti West’s latest feature as of this writing, he’s kept busy with a number of directing efforts that take a page from another grand tradition of the horror genre: the anthology, or omnibus, film. As part of the first generation of directors to come up in the age of social media, his interaction with his peers led directly to his participation in two such projects: V/H/S and THE ABC’S OF DEATH, both released in 2012.
The great thing about anthology films is that they offer the chance for a director to fully assert his or her vision. It’s like a playground where id, ego, and superego can run around unchecked. Omnibus films often give us a raw, unfiltered glimpse into a director’s particular aesthetic conceits.
Of his two 2012 projects, V/H/S is easily the most prestigious, having debuted at Sundance as part of their late-night programming. His involvement with the film positioned himself alongside Joe Swanberg (his DEAD & LONELY (2009) collaborator) and Adam Wingard (2013’s YOU’RE NEXT) as emerging masters of horror.
The conceit of V/H/S is that a group of gutter punks rage across town, videotaping their exploits as they destroy abandoned houses and force women to expose themselves on-camera. One night they break into somebody’s house to steal a particular VHS cassette tape for an unnamed client, only to find hundreds of unmarked tapes and a dead body sitting in front of a bunch of TV screens.
Undeterred by this foreboding sight, they begin to go through the tapes one by one, with each of the film’s individual segments making up its own tape.
West’s contribution appears second, and is titled SECOND HONEYMOON. It concerns a young married couple—Sam (Joe Swanberg) and Stephanie (Sophia Takal)—on a vacation in the southwestern desert, filmed entirely from the husband’s digital video camera. By day they explore the desert around them, but at night an unknown third entity films them with their own camera as they lie asleep in their beds.
Naturally this all leads to a bloody, surprising twist that I won’t spoil, but I will say this: SECOND HONEYMOON is easily the best segment in the film, with Swanberg’s own directorial piece (the cleverly webcam/Skype-recorded THE SICK THING THAT HAPPENED TO EMILY WHEN SHE WAS YOUNGER) coming in at a close second.
SECOND HONEYMOON was filmed on a digital consumer video camera, probably by West himself, so it fits within V/H/S’ aesthetic conceit—but it also begs the question why such a new digital format would ever be transferred back to VHS in the first place. The camerawork is mostly handheld, utilitarian coverage- the kind you’d expect of someone who isn’t a filmmaker shooting video.
The pacing is pretty slow, as is par for the course with West, but it picks up quite luridly by the end with some excellent gore effects that only become more visceral and realistic using the found-footage conceit.
For THE ABC’S OF DEATH, twenty-six directors were each given $5,000 to make a short with complete creative autonomy. The only requirement is that the subject matter had to do with death, and should take inspiration from a singular letter of the alphabet. West’s segment, titled M IS FOR MISCARRIAGE, is a short work—running less than a couple minutes. It concerns a woman whose clogged toilet threatens to overflow.
What’s in the bowl? Why, wouldn’t you know it– a dead fetus! Charming.
The video itself is pretty grainy, with a short zoom being the only camera movement that West indulges in. The effort as a whole is decidedly lazy, like he spent maybe $30 of the $5000 in making it and then just took off with the rest of the money for himself. He probably knew he could do so without consequence, as he’s easily the highest-profile director associated with the work.
His laziness is pretty insulting however, and M FOR MISCARRIAGE is easily his worst, and least-inspired, work.
V/H/S brought a little more exposure for West in the form of his his first trip to Sundance, while THE ABC’S OF DEATH is (much like West’s segment) dead on arrival. These are somewhat lackluster films to end West’s career examination on—they’re really more in-between jobs that fill out time between features, but that’s where he currently stands as of this writing.
You won’t find many instances of me dissecting the career of a director who is still very much on the rise. But West is a special case, as he has managed to make some incredibly large waves in less than a decade of independent filmmaking. He’s brought a sense of craftsmanship, patience, and prestige back to a genre that’s been creatively bankrupt for several decades.
There’s no telling how he’ll do when he inevitably branches out into other genres, but as of right now, West represents a beacon of hope for hungry horror aficionados, as well as the indie scene at large.
THE SACRAMENT (2013)
Up until September 11th, 2001, the greatest loss of American life in a single event was not, as some may think, Pearl Harbor—or any other act of war for that matter. On November 18th, 1978, United States Congressman Leo Ryan and a small delegation visited the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project— led by a religious zealot and fanatical communist named Jim Jones and located near the northern border of Guyana.
Ryan and his delegates found a surprisingly peaceful utopia, where Temple members had settled with their families and built a new kind of society that saw everyone living in harmony and united by the teaching of their charismatic leader. However, on that fateful day in November, Jones became convinced that Ryan would return to the United States and send in the military to destroy everything they had built.
After his armed guards murdered Ryan and the delegates, Jones assembled Temple members for a meeting and announced that it was time to commit “revolutionary suicide” against the so-called fascist pigs who would most surely descend upon them in short order. They mixed cyanide with fruit punch and drank it—willingly. Over 900 people died that day, and ever since then, the specter of Jim Jones has loomed large in our collective unconscious.
Director Ti West had long held a fascination towards what came to be known as the Jonestown Massacre. He initially envisioned it as a miniseries that would follow the formation of Jones’ cult in San Francisco through their relocation to Guyana and eventual suicide. Despite being a young, upcoming independent filmmaker with a handful of well-received features under his name, West realized that his vision perhaps might be too ambitious, and subsequently scaled it back into a feature film that would apply a fictional, contemporary take on the subject matter.
Despite the failure of his first studio effort, CABIN FEVER 2: SPRING FEVER (2009), West had gained a trusted collaborator in producer Eli Roth, and it was Roth whom West first approached with his idea for a film that would come to be known as THE SACRAMENT (2013). With Roth’s help as producer, West was able to obtain financing without having written a single page of script—a testament to the benefits of having a reputation as a fiscally responsible filmmaker working within a genre that almost always makes money.
The finished product, while far from perfect, shows a great deal of growth for West as he branches out into other forms of horror and gives us a darkly disturbing glimpse into the follies of blind faith from which we can’t look away.
West’s fictional take on The Jonestown Massacre focuses through the prism of the found-footage subgenre of horror—a conceit that has admittedly been done to death by greedy studio executives looking to trim budgets and maximize profits. However, it is an extreme disservice to West in calling THE SACRAMENT a found-footage movie.
Instead, the film presents itself as a documentary by Vice Magazine, the real-life purveyor of immersive journalism documentaries. Patrick (Kentucker Audley), a young fashion photographer, has just received correspondence from his sister after several years of silence, inviting him down for a visit to her new home at a place in South American known only as “Eden Parish”. Sam (AJ Bowen)—Patrick’s friend and a journalist for Vice—volunteers to accompany Patrick and bring a videographer named Jake (Joe Swanberg) in a bid to make a documentary about this mysterious alternative community.
When they arrive at Eden Parish, located in the jungles of an unnamed South American country (but filmed in Georgia), the filmmakers are surprised to find this “utopia” guarded by aggressive men packing AK-47 machine guns. Patrick’s sister, Caroline (Amy Seimetz), welcomes them and takes them on a tour of the encampment.
Along the way, Sam and Jake interview the campers, who have nothing but high praise for Father (Gene Jones)—their charismatic leader who has devoted his life to creating a community founded on the principles of clean living and independence from the modern world. They’re even granted an interview with Father himself, and they can’t help but be impressed by his charismatic intelligence and folksy, unpretentious appeal.
But the longer they stay in this utopia, the more they uncover the darkness hidden within—a growing number of campers desperately want out, while others will stop at nothing to keep their secret society contained and unduly influenced by the outside world. In spite of the uninspiring found-footage tropes that it employs, THE SACRAMENT is a riveting looking into the dark aspects of human nature, as we all a shocking exploration of the nature of cult.
West anchors his narrative between his five leads, complementing them with one of the best cast of extras in recent memory. In lieu of casting recognizable celebrities in the roles, West plays to the POV conceits of his approach by casting two independent filmmakers—Joe Swanberg and Kentucker Audley. Both men are collaborators and close friends of West, and have been running in the same film circles for quite some time now.
Swanberg and Audley know their way around a camera, which makes it quite easy for West to simply hand off his camera to his actors and let them shoot the movie for him. AJ Bowen, who previously appeared onscreen for West in THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL (2009), is convincing as an idealistic young journalist who is unafraid of pursuing dangerous stories.
The biggest plaudits, however, belong to Gene Jones and Amy Seimetz as the film’s best revelations. Gene Jones, perhaps best known for his bit role in the Coen Brothers’ NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007) is a spellbinding and charismatic presence as Father. His grandfatherly, southern drawl is warm and inviting to the point that it’s easily to take anything he says as the hard-earned truth, yet he’s always hiding behind dark sunglasses (even at night).
It’s an unforgettable powerhouse of a performance, and fellow directors would be wise to keep him in mind for the future. The same can be said of Amy Seimetz, who plays Caroline, Patrick’s friendly hippie sister. She’s intensely dedicated to the cause, to the point where she becomes a crucial agent of destruction as chaos breaks out amidst Eden Parish.
Throughout his career, West has cultivated a reputation for utilizing an old-fashioned, lo-fi, film-based aesthetic. This approach served him well in his debut, THE ROOST (2005), and even more so in THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL—which could actually fool someone if you told him or her it was made in the mid-80’s. With THE SACRAMENT’s contemporary setting and new media storytelling conceit, West foregoes the vintage patina of film for the sleek perfection of digital.
West uses the new Canon C300 line of HD video cameras, which combine the mobility and ease of 1080p-capable DSLRs with the higher bitrate and lowered compression found in digital cinema cameras. The demands of West’s found-footage conceit result in the actors operating the camera in naturally-lit, real-world locales—yet West doesn’t forego a cinematographer here, where he probably could have gotten away with it.
Instead, he recruits Eric Robbins, the cinematographer for THE ROOST, for their first collaboration in nearly ten years. Robbins’ hand is nearly imperceptible, helping West craft a bright and sunny aesthetic that’s not auspiciously scary-looking— which of course makes the horror to come all that more terrifying. Returning production designer Jade Healey does a great job turning Georgia farmland into a convincing jungle settlement in South America with the strategic placing of palm trees and spartan dwellings.
Prior to THE SACRAMENT, West had collaborated primarily with composer Jeff Grace in scoring his films. For whatever reason—perhaps Grace’s own rising star precluding his availability—West goes a different direction here with the hiring of well-known composer Tyler Bates. The character of Bates’ score accurately reflects West’s intended tone with a tribal, ominous sound that never spills over into outright horror.
Instead it lingers at a simmer, building up pressure as the film unfolds towards its finale. West also managed to secure the use of indie rock band Heartbeats’ popular track, “The Knife” for his opening credits, further establishing the “hipster cred” of the Vice documentary framing conceits.
With THE SACRAMENT, West is clearly attempting to branch out from the specific brand of contained horror that has so far been his bread and butter. It may take place in a singular location like his previous features have done and it may be marketed heavily on its horror merits, but THE SACRAMENT is unlike anything West has ever done.
Whereas found-footage films tend to pigeonhole their makers into a strict set of rules about form and execution, here West is able to liberate himself from his own strict aesthetic rules and in the process, imbue greater meaning into the film. Take the character of Father, a compelling personification of cowardly evil who exploits blind faith towards his advantage.
Through the lens of Father, THE SACRAMENT becomes a salient meditation on how religious texts can be perverted by zealotry and distorted to justify evil intentions. West’s self-discipline and courage as an artist is highly evident in how he shoots the death of one of the key characters. It is presented in a beautifully-composed wide shot (ironic considering the haphazard, chaotic aesthetic) that continues unbroken for quite a while as the character succumbs to an injection of cyanide into his neck.
We watch the poison course through his body in real time, easily becoming one of the most unnerving deaths in recent cinematic memory. This is the point where West hammers home the true terror of his idea and exhibits his mastery of the craft.
In a market oversaturated with uninspired found-footage horror films, THE SACRAMENT stands out as one of the most original, thanks to West’s careful crafting of visceral suspense which suggests that suggests none of our characters might make it out alive— therefore hooking us deeper into the film as the objectivity of the footage is suddenly called into question.
Despite a successful premiere in Toronto, THE SACRAMENT was only given a limited release that saw mixed critical reception—many no doubt were unable to get past the found footage conceit. However, THE SACRAMENT seems destined to live on in the home video market as a cult (sorry) hit, and its success there will undoubtedly position West will as he develops his next adventure.
TELEVISION WORK (2015)
Over the course of a decade, director Ti West had been quietly building an accomplished body of independent feature film work in the horror genre. In the absence of breakout hits, he had nonetheless managed to accumulate a notable degree of creative and cultural capital that enabled his continued output.
It was only a matter of time before the indie cred he generated with films like THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL (2009), THE INKEEPERS (2011) and THE SACRAMENT (2013) could be leveraged towards his first gig directing for prime-time television. That time arrived in 2015, at the height of what has come to be known as the Golden Age of Television– an age in which the proliferation of limited series and serialized content would attract a caliber of directing and performance talent normally reserved for cinematic features.
A lot of good television has come out of this era, but so has a lot of bad– and, unfortunately, West’s first two efforts in this arena would fall into the latter category. The constricting nature of the medium ultimately stifles his creative individuality, resulting in a pair of perfectly serviceable, yet anonymous and uninspired, episodes.
SCREAM: “THE DANCE” (2015)
In 2015, MTV released its serialized reboot/sequel to the SCREAM horror franchise, becoming a part of the larger wave of TV series adapted from iconic films. West’s experience with horror, particularly the teeny-bopper variety seen in his disowned feature CABIN FEVER 2: SPRING FEVER (2009), positioned him as an ideal candidate to helm an episode of the show.
The series was executive produced by SCREAM stewards Wes Craven and the Weinstein Brothers, but the showrunners depart entirely from the established franchise canon in a bid to update the property for a new generation. An inspired choice finds the show incorporating the framing device of a podcast, a la SERIAL, to detail the exploits of a new generation of beautiful teenagers trying to evade a mysterious masked murderer in the sleepy town of Lakewood.
West directs “THE DANCE”, the penultimate episode of the first season that culminates in an eventful Halloween dance. For such a high profile property as SCREAM, there’s surprisingly little in the way of familiar talent– indeed, the only recognizable face here is Bella Thorne, and even then you’re probably asking yourself “who?” as you read this. The acting is fairly awful across the board, with MTV seemingly banking on the fresh-faced beauty of its young unknown cast distracting us from noticing.
Beyond the appearance of Halloween iconography enabled by the titular school dance, there’s little to no evidence of West’s hand here. Well-known for his vintage visual style and fondness for shooting on film, here he must service the pre-existing digital aesthetic, which bears all the hallmarks of a fast TV shoot– utilitarian and blunt lighting, the deployment of faster handheld and steadicam moves instead of deliberate dolly or crane setups, etc.
All this being said, West does allow some creative ambition to shine through, staging a scene in which the town sheriff makes a shocking discovery during a house call in one, unbroken tracking shot. The episode also includes a teaser prologue, which West renders in a harsh green color cast, and peppers with POV shots and surveillance camera angles that recalls the found-footage conceit of THE SACRAMENT.
SCREAM: “THE DANCE” is currently available on Netflix.
SOUTH OF HELL: “TAKE LIFE NOW” (2015)
West’s second directorial effort in the television realm is “TAKE LIFE NOW”, an episode of the little-known WEtv show SOUTH OF HELL. Starring Mena Suvari and absolutely nobody else we’ve ever seen before, SOUTH OF HELL styles itself as a campy Southern Gothic series in the vein of TRUE BLOOD or TRUE DETECTIVE but faceplants in its execution.
Concerning something about demons inside people who can appear with the simple application of cheap green contact lenses, the story is a muddled mess of horror cliches and formulaic plotting. West’s hiring for “TAKE LIFE NOW” no doubt originated with his relationship to the show’s executive producer, fellow horror director Eli Roth.
The episode finds the show’s characters getting involved with a mind-control cult disguised as a self-help program and led by a charismatic charlatan– a plot that echoes the setup of West’s THE SACRAMENT and most likely further facilitated his hiring.
Drunk on the spooky atmosphere of its South Carolinian setting, SOUTH OF HELL whole-heartedly embraces the iconography of the resurgent Southern Gothic subgenre, especially its trashier aspects. Again, West is compelled to replicate a visual aesthetic that had been determined long before he was brought on board, gamely working with cinematographer Walt Lloyd in crafting the digital, harshly-lit image.
A muted color palette deals primarily in large swaths of teal, amber, and green– a common color scheme for the genre. The cinematography is easily the strongest aspect of the show, at least as I could judge from this particular episode, but it still can’t overpower the distinct whiff of bad fan-fiction that stinks up the overall proceedings.
Despite the deliberate absences of his distinct directorial signatures, West nonetheless delivers competent work that plays into his genre wheelhouse. This pair of episodes nonetheless marks an important milestone in West’s burgeoning career– by leveraging his success in the indie sector into paying work that will keep his skills sharp and his name on the callsheets, he continues to build a solid financial platform that will enable his creative freedom in larger, more-ambitious endeavors.
IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE (2016)
With an enviable body of well-crafted and warmly-received horror features under his belt, director Ti West was no doubt eager to show the cinematic community what else he could do. He had an idea for a western that drew inspiration from classic genre touchstones like HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER (1973), as well as recent action pictures like JOHN WICK (2014).
In short order, he managed to secure the participation of producer Jason Blum, whose production company, Blumhouse Pictures, had carved out a comfortable niche for itself in microbudget genre features and television shows– one of which, SOUTH OF HELL, West had recently directed an episode of.
Blum’s involvement also enabled access to actor Ethan Hawke, who had a collaborative relationship with Blum thanks to prior indie hits like THE PURGE (2013). Reuniting with his producing partners on THE SACRAMENT (2013), Peter Phok and Jacob Jaffke, West and his creative team would venture into the deserts of New Mexico to commit his vision to celluloid.
The result, 2016’s IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE, would find West entering uncharted territory in a personal artistic sense, while staying true to the aesthetic conceits that have thus far propelled his career.
Like previous West narratives, IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE takes place in a singular, somewhat-confined location: the dying frontier town of Denton. Ethan Hawke plays Paul, a civil war vet haunted by some untold tragedy. He’s on his way down to Mexico, his only companion being his trusty dog– who he’s trained to be a ruthless killing machine on command.
Paul stops in Denton’s saloon for a quick drink before continuing on, but manages to entangle himself in a fight with James Ransone’s Gilly, a cocky lawman with a chip on his shoulder and a lot to prove. He wins said fight, utterly humiliating Gilly in the process in full view of his posse (one of whom is played by Larry Fessenden, an early collaborator of West’s and an old filmmaking mentor from his internship days).
In retaliation, Gilly and his posse ambush Paul in the middle of the night and kill his beloved dog. A heartbroken Paul vows total revenge, riding back into town for a day of reckoning. West spins an incredibly lean and straightforward narrative, venturing little outside of the central Paul vs. Gilly conflict save for Paul’s alliance with Taissa Farmiga’s sweet, lovestruck hotel clerk Mary-Anne, and his reluctant enmity with Gilly’s father, Marshal Clyde Martin.
John Travolta earns second billing as the good Marshal, a morally-compromised lawman with a wooden leg. The action builds to an appropriately-explosive climax with no shortage of bloodletting, but West’s true interest lies in the nuanced relationship between his morally-ambiguous leads. The white hat/black hat dichotomy is a well-trod convention of the western genre, but West subverts it entirely in favor of letting the dynamic complexities of his gray-hat leads shine through.
IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE may be West’s first film working with bonafide star talent like Ethan Hawke or John Travolta, but behind the camera, he assembles a core creative team made up of longtime collaborators. Some, like cinematographer Eric Robbins or sound designer Graham Reznick, have been with him since his first feature– 2005’s THE ROOST.
Robbins imbues the 2.35:1 35mm film frame with a dusty, earth-tone palette appropriate to the Old West setting, embracing the iconography of classic westerns past while bringing its own unique identity to the table. West and Robbins also utilize classical camerawork like cranes and dollies in conjunction with modern techniques like handheld setups and slow zooms, injecting a kinetic freshness into a genre that hasn’t seen much innovation since the days of Sergio Leone.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of the film’s cinematography lies in the way West and Robbins render Paul’s civil war flashbacks. They present these sequences as nightmares, borrowing contemporary horror techniques like staging a chase in the woods at night and lighting it almost entirely by flashlight.
Longtime production designer Jade Healy returns as well, building the entirety of Denton out in the New Mexican desert quite literally as a sandbox for West and company to play around in. Finally, frequent composer Jeff Grace returns after sitting out THE SACRAMENT, channeling the style of Ennio Morricone with an eclectic mix of guitar riffs, drums, spurs, and synth strings.
As previously mentioned, IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE is West’s first genre exercise out of the horror/thriller realm, seemingly content to tackle the conventions of the western in a straightforward manner. Indeed, on first glance, most if not all West’s features seem rather straightforward in their storytelling– another look, however, reveals these otherwise “straightforward” narratives are nevertheless born of a postmodern technical approach.
THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL (2009) embraced its 1980’s period setting to the point that it was physically crafted and marketed to appear like it had been made contemporaneously. THE INKEEPERS (2011) married the visual conceits of the Victorian haunted house story with the modern technological era. Even THE SACRAMENT used its found-footage structure to question the objectivity of the format itself.
IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE subverts the swashbuckling nature of the western genre by using the visual grammar of horror during Paul’s climactic vengeance spree. Beyond narrative beats like Larry Fessenden’s character getting his throat slashed in the bathtub, West employs the type of framing and movement one expects to see in a scary movie– or not see, given West’s strategic withholding of visual information from his compositions in favor of aural suggestion.
The vintage aesthetic that’s marked West’s body of work to date expectedly surfaces IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE, even if West is barely making a conscious effort to do so. In an age where most indie films like this one would have been shot digitally, West’s choice to shoot on glorious 35mm film is an old-fashioned one by its very nature.
West further evokes the mid-century style of spaghetti westerns by borrowing (rather liberally, I might add) from the graphic style of Leone’s FISTFUL OF DOLLARS’ opening titles for his own credits. The result is a modern, modest western that pays homage to its cinematic forebears, destined to age gracefully thanks to the timeless quality of its execution.
IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE received a high profile premiere at South By Southwest, bowing to mostly positive reviews. However, it didn’t have much staying power at the box office, leaving the arthouse circuit almost as fast as it arrived. Thankfully, it was made under the Blumhouse model, which it to say it was churned out on the cheap as part of a larger slate, and its failure to perform could be subsidized by the profits from Blum’s other pictures.
Despite its almost-certain destiny as a minor work in West’s filmography, IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE nevertheless exhibits an ambitious young director using his established skill set in the horror realm to become a more well-rounded filmmaker overall.
“WAYWARD PINES” EPISODES (2016)
Director Ti West’s 2015 stints on MTV’s SCREAM and WEtv’s SOUTH OF HELL established him as a viable filmmaker in the television space, which, in the age of streaming and endless content, presents a far more reliable supply of paycheck opportunities than feature filmmaking can provide. After releasing his under-the-radar western IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE (2016), West returned to TV, leveraging his experience working with high-profile talent like Ethan Hawke and John Travolta into the bigger-budget world of broadcast productions.
He was hired to direct two episodes from the second season of the popular Fox show, WAYWARD PINES— the brainchild of M. Night Shyamalan and Chad Hodge, adapted from the eponymous book series by Blake Crouch. He was assigned a mid-season episode titled “EXIT STRATEGY” as well as the season finale, “BEDTIME STORY”, either of which would have been a plum gig for an enterprising young filmmaker like West.
Considering that the series has yet to get picked up for a 3rd season, West’s effort takes on an added significance: making him responsible for the finale of the entire series. In effect, he would have to finish what Shyamalan started.
WAYWARD PINES is a mystery drama in the vein of David Lynch’s TWIN PEAKS, albeit with a major sci-fi twist: it’s actually the year 4032, and the small mountain town of Wayward Pines is the last bastion of humanity after a mutated strain of humans has obliterated the rest of the species. West’s episodes in particular both circle towards the endgame, showing how the threat posed by the Abbeys (as the mutants are called, short for “aberration”) will reach its logical conclusion.
The plots of the individual episodes don’t quite transcend the well-worn plot manipulations of standard broadcast dramas, but the show’s sci-fi/horror twist provides enough intrigue to keep things moving along at a brisk clip. Far more interesting about the stories contained within West’s episodes is the opportunities it provides to work with established character actors like Jason Patric, Djimon Hounsou, and Shannyn Sossamon.
As appropriate for the medium of broadcast prime time television, “EXIT STRATEGY” and “BEDTIME STORY” contain little to none of West’s unique artistic signatures. He’s forced to adapt to the stylistic decisions of others– Shyamalan’s most of all, considering his role in establishing the series’ overall aesthetic by directing the pilot.
The digital cinematography is appropriately dark and moody, albeit with an intangible flimsiness, an unfortunate byproduct of TV production’s fast-paced nature. That being said, there’s definitely a concrete style at play here– a shallow depth of field coats the background of nearly every shot in a thick veil of fuzziness, and flashier techniques like canted angles and drone photography supplement the standard coverage workhorses.
Judging from West’s episodes alone, one compelling aspect of WAYWARD PINES’ aesthetic is the recurring use of unconventional compositions, which often throw the subject off to an extreme edge of the frame in favor of a considerable amount of dead space. This makes for a captivating, if slightly uneasy, viewing experience that pulls the audience ever deeper into the gloomy intrigue.
West’s work here is serviceable, delivering what I imagine is a satisfying conclusion to the season (or series, as it may turn out). It doesn’t offer much in the way of personal artistic growth, other than the continued experience of working with recognizable performers, but it nevertheless solidifies West’s portfolio of commission work and positions him well for the leap into prestige TV, should he want it.
Author Cameron Beyl is the creator of The Directors Series and an award-winning filmmaker of narrative features, shorts, and music videos. His work has screened at numerous film festivals and museums, in addition to being featured on tastemaking online media platforms like Vice Creators Project, Slate, Popular Mechanics and Indiewire. To see more of Cameron’s work – go to directorsseries.net.
THE DIRECTORS SERIES is an educational collection of video and text essays by filmmaker Cameron Beyl exploring the works of contemporary and classic film directors. ——>Watch the Directors Series Here <———