Directed by: Ti West || Produced by: Larry Fessenden [The Roost, The Innkeepers], Josh Braun, Roger Kass [The House of the Devil], Derek Kurl, Peter Phok [The House of the Devil, The Innkeepers], Ti West [The Innkeepers]
Screenplay by: Ti West || Starring: Wil Horneff, Vanessa Horneff, Karl Jacob [R], Jocelin Donahue, Mary Woronov, Greta Gerwig, Dee Wallace [HD], Sara Paxton, Pat Healy, Kelly McGillis [IK], Tom Noonan [R, HD]
Music by: Jeff Grace || Cinematography: Eric Robbins [R], Eliot Rockett [HD, IK] || Edited by: Ti West || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 80 minutes [R], 95 minutes [HD], 101 minutes [IK]
While consuming copious amounts of independent and/or straight-to-home video (i.e. streaming exclusive) horror pictures over the past few years, including but not limited to quality pictures like Starry Eyes (2014), Last Shift (2014), We Are Still Here (2015), and It Follows (2014), I also stumbled upon to the lauded burgeoning filmography of horror auteur Ti West. Peruse any horror blog or indie-film forum and you’ll likely come across fans of his work, as well as his most recent forays into Westerns with this year’s In a Valley of Violence (2016).
For my part, Ti West is not only an overrated indie-genre filmmaker, but his overall directorial style represents the worst in modern “high-concept” horror, the genre’s mind-numbingly boring equivalent to Oscar-bait dramas. West’s films, three of which shall be examined in this three-for-one review, take the concept of “slow, thematic, atmospheric” horror and turn it into a dull parody of itself. West’s horror filmmaking is not terrible by any means — certainly not compared to the likes of most modern found-footage movies that cheat their way into wide-release theatres — but it is the pseudo-intellectual overreaction to all that is bad in modern mainstream horror.
The Roost (2005):
While by far the cheapest and roughest looking production of the three films reviewed here, The Roost is the movie I enjoyed the most. Its acting needs work, and the roughness of the footage itself wreaks havoc with the movie’s lighting scheme; still, The Roost maintains a constant sense of dread throughout its running time, something that is key for these low-budget, independent horror features that are, by design, low on gore and high on tonal intensity.
The Roost’s premise consists of four friends who avoid a near-fatal car accident on their way to a wedding on Halloween. While looking for roadside assistance, they stumble upon a secluded farm where evil vampire bats attack them and other strangers, turning their victims into undead zombies.
This setup is great, and is mostly free from dumb character actions or bad dialogue. The actors themselves leave much to be desired, but they’re serviceable for the movie as a whole. You can project yourself into their situation, and that’s what matters.
The biggest problem with The Roost is the crippling flaw in both The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers: Pacing. While The Roost has enough scares to fill out a 60-70 minute running-time, it relies on unnecessary, on-the-nose vignettes shot in black-and-white, featuring Tim Noonan, which I believe are supposed to hearken back to old-fashioned horror anthology serials. These vignettes feel completely out of place and perform no function besides padding the movie’s length to a minimal 80-minutes.
The House of the Devil (2009):
This is the film that was hyped the most for me, given so many online video-bloggers’ high recommendations and professional reviewers’ critical acclaim. Simply put, the last twenty-five minutes of House of the Devil would have made a terrific short-film, but as a 95-minute feature-length film, it’s just filled with too much… well, filler.
Much of House of the Devil plays like a love-letter to 1970s-1980s horror cinematography, featuring an analog period-setting, freeze-frame introductory credits, use of camera-zooms over dolly tracking-shots, and even a faux-“based on a true story” opening text in the style of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and The Amityville Horror (1979). While this attention to period-detail is neat, it does little to substantiate the narrative’s utter lack of forward progress for its first sixty minutes.
The entire first two acts deal with the exhilarating terror of an 1980s college student finding a babysitting job to pay her apartment rent, then driving to a creepy, secluded mansion where she prances around the halls for half an hour listening to her Walkman. It’s a period-piece; it’s an 1980s-throwback! I get it! Where’s the atmospheric tension, again?
A few brief jolts in violence occasionally woke me from my stupor while waiting for something to happen, but these are mostly creaking sound FX or a quick murder via a 9mm at point-blank range with no buildup or pacing. For a 95-minute Satanic-panic feature about giving birth to the Devil’s child or the Devil himself or whatever, The House of the Devil is like watching paint dry. The ending is terrific and showcases West’s ability to execute genuine horror, but it’s not enough to make up for the hour-plus of killing time that preceded it. This movie does not justify its status as a feature-film.
The Innkeepers (2011):
Perhaps the least scary and most frustrating film of the bunch, The Innkeepers shares so many problems with both The Roost and The House of the Devil that I’ll try my best not to repeat myself. Like the latter, Innkeepers struggles with maintaining tension and tight pacing throughout, and would’ve functioned just fine as a short. Like the former, Innkeepers contains numerous comedy gags and vignettes that serve no purpose other than to pad out its already empty running-time.
The movie follows the closing weekend of a historical hotel, whose two remaining employees (actors Sara Paxton and Pat Healy) are overseeing, while also exploring the building’s alleged paranormal activity. To be blunt, the film changes tones at least four or five times throughout, unable to decide whether it wants to be a lighthearted comedy, a black comedy, a serious drama, or a bone-chilling horror movie. The movie’s tonal shifts are so jarring that it becomes distracting less than halfway through the story, and matters aren’t helped by Paxton and Healy’s unclear relationship, mediocre chemistry, and the latter character’s unclear motivations.
Much like House of the Devil, there are genuine moments of horror scattered about, and the climax is impressive, but none of these scenes justify the movie’s overall confusing narrative progression, nor its snail’s pace. Supporting characters played by Kelly McGillis, Lena Dunham, and Alison Bartlett were thrown in to, I assume, further pad out the movie, as none of their roles yield any satisfying payoff.
The general consensus on modern horror filmmaking is that the studio productions mostly suck nowadays. There are a few exceptions that garner a wide-release schedule, such as Fede Alvarez’s Don’t Breathe (2016), but for the most part, it’s best to stick to film festivals, niche-theatre releases in bigger cities, or Netflix for competitive modern horror.
Still, exceptions to the rule will always exist, and it’s clear to me at least that critically acclaimed genre-filmmakers can be as overrated and overblown as yearly dramatic Oscar-bait. I know West has skill behind the camera, given his brief flashes of brilliance throughout these three films. However, as films overall, The Roost, The House of the Devil, and The Innkeepers have convinced me to avoid his future releases, short of a spectacular persuasion to the contrary.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: If you’re the sort of movie-goer who lives and dies on jump-scares or extreme gore in your horror movies, stay far away from Ti West. If you’re looking for thought-provoking, well paced, intense horror filmmaking in the vein of The Witch (2015) or It Follows, I would also recommend staying away. These movie’s aren’t trash, but don’t let anyone tell you they’re effective scary movies, either.
—> NOT RECOMMENDED
? I raise Heeeeeeell/They tried to send me down below/But now the Devil’s scared!