Abattoir Blues #3 – Watching Ti West
In an interview with – curse the bastards forever for making me type this – Interview, Ti West told future-collaborator Lena Dunham that horror in the 00’s is “like porn”, and lamented the mainstream’s belief that “the horrific stuff is what makes these types of films successful”, leading to a marginalisation of “the real life aspect”. He’s far from wrong. Recent efforts, such as this year’s Evil Dead remake, have felt like watching kids feed action figures into a wood chipper thanks to a total disregard for character in favour of cramming the full 90 minutes with “the horrific stuff”. But as West explains, “All of the stuff in the film that’s not horror is what makes all of the horror stuff work”.
This attitude is common amongst the more highly regarded independent directors working in horror today – mostly because it’s absolutely correct – and it’s put West in a interesting place. Though he’s understandably loathe to be seen as a genre filmmaker, and is largely disregarded by hardcore horror fans (Horror-Movies.ca on The Innkeepers; “nothing happens for a VERY long time”), he’s developed a strong reputation amongst film lovers who’d normally give horror a wide berth. He makes films that become horror films, because “that’s what life is like”. As he puts it, “you would probably just be sitting around watching YouTube or texting someone and then suddenly your life becomes totally horrifying and beyond your control”.
Here’s our guide to watching Ti West, excepting (in the interests of a) not appearing hysterical and b) word count) his 2006 thriller Trigger Man – which you should still watch, but when you’re in more of a Von Trier mood.
Origins – The RoostAs well as his knack with setting and character, West is a master of throwback aesthetics, and has been right from the off. If you’re a fan of the rough feel that defined the independent chillers of the seventies – Texas Chainsaw, Halloween &c – you’d be forgiven for thinking The Roost was a long undiscovered relic. Though strictly for horror fans (some of the acting and effects are a little hokey, though not a lot) West’s debut really stands out because, for one, it’s genuinely frightening, and with this kind of budget that’s a pretty rare thing. Best of all is a scene in which a man, swarmed by bats, runs through a door that leads.. to a three story drop onto a stone courtyard. The exterior is captured in a single static shot, and… I’m not convinced that they used a dummy.
Thinking Outside the Box – The InnkeepersIn many ways, The Innkeepers is a direct inversion of West’s usual style – but it’s the strongest realisation of his “real life aspect” philosophy yet. From the film’s look and dialogue, to devices such as gag scares via viral emails (and a bizarre/hilarious Lena Dunham cameo), The Innkeepers has both feet firmly placed in the present; it’s practically a 2011 period piece. Similarly, whereas West’s characters are normally looking forward (to a wedding, to getting out of town), blissfully unaware of whatever horrific thing is on the way, this time our protagonists have nothing in their future and are obsessed with digging into the past – and because of this, they bring on the horror themselves. Of course, when that horror arrives, the opening act – which blends the conversational slacker charm of Clerks with the wide-eyed adventurous spirit of something like The Goonies – has done such a good job of establishing the two leads (especially Sarah Paxton) that the whole experience ends up feeling akin to watching close friends play with fireworks.
Deep Cut – (some of) Cabin Fever 2: Spring FeverWest has disowned Spring Fever, and with good reason – thanks to studio cuts and reshoots, not a lot of it is actually his. But that not a lot is totallly worth it. From the opening shot of an infected man staggering through the woods, leaving bits of himself on stray branches as he goes, to the glorious Carrie-on-Tamiflu prom sequence, there’s enough here to keep completists going while you’re frantically trying to track a copy of The Roost down.
The Genre Classic – The House of the DevilWhen he was a kid, Picasso painted ‘Portrait of Aunt Pepa‘. Having essentially perfected what was at that point considered the art of painting. he broke the medium down, reinterpreted it, and started painting naked women that look like collapsing buildings.
If you’ll forgive the lofty/clumsy comparison, The House of The Devil is essentially West’s ‘Portrait of Aunt Pepa’; a perfect realisation of traditional genre mechanics and the pinnacle of West’s experiments with revivalism – this time, we’re in a meticulously rendered early 80’s there’s-something-else-in-the-house tension-fest – before taking on a less conventional approach for The Innkeepers.
What’s most remarkable is both the precision and the patience on display here. Though events unfold slowly, there are no complete breaks in tension; it ebbs and flows like the tide, with even the quieter moments infused with a sense of gradually escalating dread. Even the handful of full-blooded scares are there to unsettle rather than provide release.
This all adds up to a quiet masterpiece, the kind of film that invokes its predecessors while earning the right to stand alongside them. Not unlike West himself.