Thursday, July 4, 2013

Ti West: Contemporary Retro Shock

I admit to being heavily biased towards older movies, and also finding that many recent horror films are utterly boring, obvious, high-gloss pieces of PG-13 shit made for audiences with the attention span of a daycare center. Yeah I know...that's what happens when you get old.  It's hard to find a director with any identifiable qualities that set them apart from others, and usually I don't even remember a current director's name. 

Ti West makes current films that are rooted in more fertile ground than most contemporary horror films, and his work does something that goes beyond just paying lip service to classic horror films of the 70s and 80s, he pieces together the elements of his films in the way a director from this era might have.  His 2005 film "The Roost" features a gimmick--an actual cheesy gimmick!--in a wraparound "horror host" format that has Tom Noonan as a ghoulish figure who introduces the film from a spooky set. The plot of "The Roost" is also about as retro as you could get, with killer vampire bats whose victims reanimated as zombies. West uses a lot of comic book lighting, giving the film a very "Creepshow" feel (as opposed to Bava or Argento). It's not a great movie, and in retrospect you can see West experimenting with slow pacing and coming out a little too zombified. But watching "The Roost", you can also immediately tell West has style, as well as a fine appreciation for what horror fanboys look for when they're too jaded to actually be scared.  There's something atypical in its sound design that really made the film memorable to me: there was actual silence in it. It's so rare to see a horror director let a scene go by without some kind of musical background, whether it's appropriate or not. When I saw William Friedkin's recut of "The Exorcist" in 2000, I was shocked at how he deflated the tension in his brilliant original sound design by adding ominous horror movie cues and audio stingers over certain scenes. Perhaps Friedkin was trying to make the film more contemporary in a subtle way, but West rejects this idea and makes his contemporary films more memorable because of it.

 2009's "House of the Devil", West's best film so far, is set in 1983 and is so evocative that it almost could be a film from that era. All directors are inspired by someone else's work, and West was clearly inspired by 70s drive-in exploitation, but what makes him remarkable to me is that he doesn't only want to show you violence. He is just as interested in creating a mounting atmosphere of suspense, and his movies aren't cluttered with constant dialogue. Even better, he bucks the recent trend of explaining every plot detail and providing reasons, motivations, back stories for his characters. These elements are there to be discovered, in case you haven't lost your ability to focus your attention on a movie for 90 minutes, but he clearly thinks the audience is intelligent enough to piece together the plot of a horror movie.  "House of the Devil" concerns Samantha, a babysitter in distress in a dark house in the middle of the woods. The majority of the movie follows Samantha through a few days in her lonely existence as a college student. Desperate to make some money, she responds to a notice for babysitting work and is lured to a remote location where she meets a very strange couple who want her to stay there with their ailing "mother" who lives in the attic. The gleeful thing about "House of the Devil" is the way it only has a flirting relationship with violence and gore, concentrating on the agonizing buildup of Samantha's predicament. There is some pretty startling violence in the movie, mostly confined to the abbreviated final act, and you only have to browse some of the movie's IMDB comments to find viewers who don't feel the film's payoff is worth "all the boring stuff" they sat through to reach it. I can understand anybody having a difference of opinion about any subject, but in this case it's clear to me that to have missed the point so completely means that the complainers have no appreciation for West's vision, which I consider a rare and valuable one if you do like suspenseful horror movies. West's films don't come from a place where horror movies are about the blood and the monster. Although his movies do have blood and monsters in them, to him what makes a horror movie is the fear of the unknown.

2011's "The Innkeepers" features a similarly moody scenario that is more about what might happen than about what does. A pair of young-ish front desk clerks in an old hotel moonlight as amateur paranormal investigators, collecting what they consider to be strange phenomena and posting their findings on their website. On the hotel's last weekend in operation, they are feeling the pressure to get a recording of something truly spooky to finally boost the popularity of their site, and they're anxious for the hotel's supposed ghost to show herself. West fills the majority of the film with an eerie quiet, punctuated by ominous sounds--something seemingly typical of horror movies, yet which so few filmmakers really get right. The film is filled with horror cliches, and by now there isn't much that can be done in any horror movie and have it not be considered derivative. What makes a horror director exciting is when they're able to make the same old stuff seem interesting again, and that's what I like most about "The Innkeepers".  Another thing that really took me by surprise is the way the plot seems to encourage interpretation by the viewer. West cheats a little bit by placing actual ghostly manifestations in a film where the script implies that the ghosts might not actually be real after all, but that's the kind of twist M. Night Shyamalan has been trying to recreate ever since "The Sixth Sense".

This kind of twist also showed up in West's segment of the multi-story "V/H/S" (2012), in a segment comprised of home movies shot by a vacationing married couple. In a moment that reminded me a lot of David Lynch's "Lost Highway", the videos are interspersed with footage that appears on the tape of the married couple sleeping in their hotel room at night, the camera obviously wielded by someone that they don't know is watching them sleep. The identity of the person isn't as exciting as we hope it will be, but it does encourage you to go back and watch the segment again to unravel the mystery after knowing the twist. 

It's worth mentioning that Ti West directed "Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever", a sequel to a movie for which I had no love whatsoever, so I still haven't given that one a watch. However, after sitting through the excruciating experience known as "The ABCs of Death" (2013) just to see West's segment, I think maybe a sequel to "Cabin Fever" doesn't sound so bad after all.  "The ABCs of Death" is a 26-segment collaboration where 26 directors were given a letter of the alphabet, a budget of $5000, and told to make a five minute segment involving some form of death, usually gruesome. West's segment was so short as to be inconsequential, and like the rest of the movie, it was little more than a fleeting glimpse at something unpleasant, which didn't exactly equal entertainment. I won't complain too much about anything shitty Ti West does, though, because I really do like his style and I think it's really important that there are still directors who are interested in making films that go for the slow burn rather than the all-out blitz that ADHD horror audiences have come to expect. In that regard, his work and his career are absolutely crucial. I wish there was a way that he could become wildly successful, yet still not get a budget that would result in him abandoning this style of filmmaking for something overly elaborate and unscary.

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