Horror director Ti West came up through the world of micro-budget filmmaking. His early efforts were bankrolled by the likes of Larry Fessenden. He was also involved in the mumblecore movement thanks to a friendship with Joe Swanberg: They've even acted in each other's movies.
He has directed episodes of television shows as varied as "The Resident" and "Wayward Pines," and he has helmed short segments of modern classic anthology films such as "V/H/S" and "The ABCs of Death." In other words, West's directing sensibility is everywhere, never more so than in 2022, when he released two interconnected hits through A24, "X" and "Pearl."
His feature efforts reveal him to be a chameleon, the rare director who can work in many different horror registers. He makes straightforward slashers, slow-burn atmospheric chillers, films full of blood and guts, and movies where his characters are trapped in situations choked by unimaginable tension. Some of his best films have even been met with Oscar buzz.
Trigger Man (2007)
While there's nothing wrong with a slow movie, Ti West's 2007 thriller "Trigger Man" is slow. It's about three friends who go out into the woods for a day of hunting, only to find themselves on the receiving end of someone else's rifle scope. That's a solid concept for a thriller, but the problem is that the shooting doesn't start until almost 40 minutes in.
For the majority of the first act, the friends merely wander the woods. Though this is a solid chance for some character-building, the movie does not care who these guys are, so neither do we. Instead, they wander the woods in silence, only occasionally teasing one another about women or stopping to share a beer.
Once the action picks up, there are a couple of suitably brutal sequences that come close to delivering on the promise of the premise. Overall, this is an ultra-low-budget movie that doesn't even come close to showing the filmmaking potential that West would soon display only two years later in "The House of the Devil."
The Roost (2005)
Ti West's debut feature "The Roost" is wrapped in a frame story that smartly positions it as an installment of a late-night cable-access horror show. In other words: Keep your expectations low, and you might just have a good time. A horror host (Tom Noonan) tells us to buckle up for a creature feature, and that's exactly what we get.
"The Roost" is about a group of twenty-somethings heading to a wedding when their car goes off the road. They trek to a nearby farmhouse, where they stumble onto a grisly scene. There are bats in the barn, and they're hungry. Oh, and there are zombies in the house.
On the one hand, "The Roost" is a calling card for West, a chance to prove that, given a modest budget, he can do it. He can competently execute horror scares, shoot scenes that shock, and even pull off some moderately impressive gore. It also contains the early seeds of his fascination with the genre; many of his future films would lean all the way into tropes and references, knocking them out of the park as a way to both subvert them and revel in their pleasures.
That being said, this is a low-budget film, and while it is more enjoyable than his sophomore feature, there's still a glaring lack of attention paid to character development. It sometimes slogs, too, between bat attacks. Aside from being a curiosity for those interested in his filmography, there's little to recommend.
In A Valley Of Violence (2016)
"In a Valley of Violence" seems like an odd one out in Ti West's filmography. It's not a horror movie, for one; instead, it's a tonally-confused Western that plays like a low-budget, blackly-funny twist on "John Wick." Ethan Hawke stars as Paul, a Civil War-era drifter with a dog. When he runs afoul of some miscreants (led by James Ransone) in a dried-up mining town, they kill his dog, leading him to seek revenge.
It's a geezer-teaser, too; John Travolta is in it, though he appears mostly at the beginning and end, playing the town's lone lawman and the father of James Ransone's character. Karen Gillan and Taissa Farmiga round out the cast as two sisters who run the local hotel, and they seem to have stepped out of a different movie entirely, acting as though they're in a bawdy comedy rather than an ostensible thriller.
It's not terrible. The second half of the film is one long, drawn-out shooting sequence, and while that sounds promising, it's not particularly engaging as an action setpiece. It all takes place on a mostly empty, stock Western town set, and West doesn't find anything interesting to do with his setup aside from having Paul pick off the dog killers one by one. Still, Hawke and Travolta seem to be having fun together, so that's something, at least.
Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever (2009)
The same year Ti West released slow-burn chiller "The House of the Devil," he also put out a straight-to-DVD sequel to Eli Roth's gross-out shocker "Cabin Fever." The two couldn't be more different. "Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever" is the only film West has directed without writing (though he does have a story credit).
It's an over-the-top gorefest, continuing the tale of a deadly bacterial infection that liquefies and putrefies human flesh. This time, it's spreading through the water supply, running rampant through a local high school on prom night. Imagine "Carrie," except instead of a telekinetic girl trapping everyone in the gymnasium and setting it on fire, the kids are all just puking blood on one another while their teeth and fingernails fall out.
There isn't much of West's personality to be found here; he's mostly just aping Roth's style from the first film. To be fair, that's exactly the assignment, and he does it reasonably well for a direct-to-video film that basically exists as a vehicle for nudity and gore. The characters are caricatures of horny teens, everyone's mean to each other, and the body count is absurd.
For what it is, it's … fine. Still, the main plot is wrapped up in about 70 minutes, leaving time for a coda showing a decaying stripper's routine and an animated outro detailing all the other ways the infection has escaped the film. Ultimately, "Cabin Fever 2" doesn't leave much of an impression.
The Innkeepers (2011)
Early on in "The Innkeepers," a hotel employee named Luke (Pat Healy) shows his coworker Claire (Sara Paxton) a video he says he found on a "paranormal forum." The two think the doomed hotel where they work is haunted, and they're planning to use this last weekend before the place closes for good as a chance to finally capture proof of the supernatural.
The video, Luke says, shows a ghost, but Claire needs to look closely, because he almost missed it. She stares… and stares… and waits… and suddenly a face fills the screen, shrieking. It's a joke, in other words. These online "screamers" were all the rage around the time "The Innkeepers" was released, and Ti West seems to structure the film around the same concept. There are long, drawn-out stretches of a character exploring a room… staring into darkness… waiting for something to happen… and then it does, and we chuckle with relief.
Charitably, we might say that West understands very well the tension-and-release rhythms of the horror film. Less charitably, we might call "The Innkeepers" a mild disappointment, stuffed full of little except jump scares.
This is also West at his most mumblecore. "What a failblog!" one character exclaims, and another agrees, "Epic." The ghosts' makeup looks costumey, and Paxton's performance is overly broad; she seems to be going for laughs rather than scares. Still, there's enough craft on display to make "The Innkeepers" a decent-enough entry in West's filmography.
The Sacrament (2013)
Here's where things get great. Ti West's found-footage cult film "The Sacrament" takes the form of a VICE documentary. It's about a team of journalists (AJ Bowen and Joe Swanberg) who travel to a remote commune because the addict sister (Amy Seimetz) of their colleague (Kentucker Audley) has joined a group called Eden's Parish.
Naturally, they want to ascertain whether she's in a cult. When they arrive, they discover the entire commune is under the sway of a man who goes by Father (Gene Jones). Moreover, they fear, the whole group might be about to do something tragic. That's right, folks: We're doing Jonestown.
In some respects, "The Sacrament" is kind of tasteless. Real people died in the Jonestown Massacre, and "The Sacrament" trades on our collective memory of that event (the loudspeaker, the drinking) to generate suspense. Tasteless, maybe, but also extremely effective.
Once the inevitable begins to happen, we're trapped in it, the audience knowing exactly what's about to go down but unable to do anything to stop it. While we don't want to spoil the ending, West has the nerve to end the film with title cards about the victims of Eden's Parish, as though this were a real documentary. That's an audacious move, exactly the kind of boundary-pushing we want from our horror films.
The movie is also well-acted, especially thanks to Jones' performance as the cult leader. It's downright chilling when he asks the camera, "Why couldn't you leave us alone?"
The House Of The Devil (2009)
Ti West's other 2009 film "The House of the Devil" is the one that put him on the indie-horror map. The 2000s were full of grotesque films that pushed against the limits of how much gore could be shown on screen, so "The House of the Devil," with its throwback aesthetics and slow-burn atmospherics, felt like a breath of fresh air. This is a movie that's content with being eerie and unsettling rather than shocking or disturbing, and it's all the better for it.
It's about a babysitter named Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) who takes a job at a remote house on the night of an eclipse. The man who lives there (Tom Noonan) reveals that he doesn't actually have a child who needs to be watched; instead, he says his invalid mother-in-law is in bed, and he wants someone home in case she needs something.
As the night drags on, Samantha explores the old home and realizes that something dark and sinister is afoot. It all builds to an explosive third act that pays homage to films like "Rosemary's Baby," playing into horror tropes like the Satanic Panic.
In addition to the classical filming style, the performances are what make "House of the Devil" so compelling. In early scenes, Samantha is joined by a friend named Megan, played in an early-career role by Greta Gerwig. Also, keep an ear out for a young Lena Dunham as a 9-1-1 operator.
The second of the two Ti West films released in 2022, "Pearl" serves as a prequel to "X." It follows Mia Goth's old-lady slasher from the latter film, tracking her early years, back when she was still a girl who just wanted to dance. The young Peal lives in the farmhouse that served as the setting for "X" with her mother (Tandi Wright), a miserable woman who keeps her on a short leash, and her invalid father (Matthew Sunderland).
She strikes up a romance with a handsome projectionist from town (a charming David Corenswet), but when she realizes that her dreams of stardom might be out of reach, Pearl comes unglued. Whereas "X" visually echoed sun-baked 70s horror films like "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre," "Pearl" is much brighter and more vibrantly technicolor; West has cited "The Wizard of Oz" as a major inspiration. It's a fun aesthetic palette for a horror movie to play in, but "Pearl" is more broadly comedic than its counterpart, too.
In Goth's hands, Pearl's character is simultaneously adorable and deranged, both pitiable and frightening. In fact, it's such a staggering performance that it's hard not to feel like the entire film exists just so Goth can show off. It makes this easily-memorable character's showing less effective than her first outing in "X." Still, don't get us wrong, she's tremendous, and the nine-minute monologue that closes the film might just be the best scene of the year.
In 2022, Ti West returned from a six-year feature filmmaking hiatus with "X," a porno-slasher that pays homage to films like "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre." It's his most conventional movie in some ways, but it's also his strongest; "X" is purely entertaining from start to finish.
The movie is about a group of young people (including Brittany Snow, Mia Goth, Scott "Kid Cudi" Mescudi, and "Wednesday" breakout Jenna Ortega) who want to make an adult film, so they rent the guest house on a farm down South.
They figure they might have to distract the old couple who lives there while they film their sex scenes; they just don't expect that the elderly woman, Pearl, is a psychotic killer.
"X" is the perfect blend of campy and creepy, leaning into the silliness of a dancing-obsessed old woman as a slasher villain while also making her frightening as hell. Goth pulls double duty, playing both a fame-obsessed ingenue named Maxine and the old-lady killer; one sequence in which Pearl climbs into Maxine's bed is particularly devilish.
Snow has also never been better, and Ortega gets a moment that proves she might be one of our best modern scream queens. A24 has already greenlit a third film in this universe, leading to another collaboration with Goth that leaves Pearl behind and instead follows Maxine into her future. It remains to be seen what that movie will be like, but one thing's for sure: We'll be watching. West has earned it.
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