The horror genre is an eclectic genre, with films that run the gamut from quiet and thoughtful ruminations on human existence to noisy and barely contained gore and chaos. As a result, many of the films (and filmmakers) working in the genre are divisive figures. One such divisive figure, known for his deliberate pacing, quiet mood creation, and excellent attention to detail, is director Ti West. As his new film, “The Sacrament,” prepares for its theatrical release, it’s worth noting his career up to this point.
His career began when, after attending film school in New York and making the award-winning short horror film “The Wicked,” West was introduced to producer/director Larry Fessenden. They had similar tastes and interests, and hit it off, with Fessenden offering to produce his first film, the low-budget film “The Roost.”
Fessenden continued his working relationship with West, who would direct two more films with Fessenden as producer: Trigger Man (a very inexpensive but intriguing concept based on a true story about hunters who end up finding themselves being hunted), and the film for which West became most well-known, “House of the Devil.”
The popularity and recognition of “House of the Devil” led West to his most mainstream offering thus far, the sequel film to Eli Roth’s disease horror hit “Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever.” Though not his favorite filmmaking experience (much of the work West put into the project was altered in post-production), the film still holds up as a fun and disturbing movie that lives up to its predecessor’s subject.
After his next (and final) film partnering with Fessenden, “The Innkeepers,” West tried his hand at anthology films by making entries into two of the most well-known recent horror anthologies: “V/H/S” (in which he directed the Second Honeymoon segment) and “The ABC’s of Death” (in which he made M Is For Miscarriage). Both films truncated West’s natural inclination for a slow and intentional build-up, and were received with mixed reviews. His body of work, however, certainly stands as an idiosyncratic and important voice in the arena of modern independent horror.
A cast of relative unknowns (with the exception of cameos from producer Fessenden and horror movie staple Tom Noonan) brings “The Roost” to life in the story of four teens lost during a trip who stop at a seemingly abandoned farm, only to find out the disturbing reason why the farm seemed deserted in the first place. An excellent debut feature with tense moments and an atmosphere of dread, the film gets by entirely on its effectiveness (as there is no story to speak of).
If “The Roost” was a throwback to grindhouse films of the 1970’s like “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “Three On a Meathook,” “House of the Devil” is a loving (and minutely detailed) homage to spooky house slasher films of the 1980’s like “Cry of the Strangers” and “The Silent Scream.” Excellent supporting performances from Tom Noonan (again) and Mary Woronov, as well as AJ Bowen (who West would work with again several times, both as director and fellow actor in the recent film “You’re Next”), the film is an evocative recapturing of time and place that is at times perfectly still and teeming with oppressing atmosphere. The shock ending makes the wait worth it, and the wait is beautiful to watch.
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It almost seems as if West intended his three films to be representations of different eras of horror, because “The Innkeepers” plays like an entry in the 1990’s horror-comedy self-referential work of the post-“Scream” era. Following two slackers working at a hotel during the last week before it closes, the film follows in quiet detail the frustrations and boredom of work life, with the occasional surprise and fright moment. Starring Sara Paxton (“The Last House on the Left,” “Shark Night 3-D”) and Pat Healy (“Compliance” and the recent “Cheap Thrills) as the hotel employees, with a great turn from Kelly McGillis as a psychic/celebrity, the film is an odd duck, vacillating between great character moments and frustrating slowness. The ending once again surprises and shocks, though without the visceral impact of “House of the Devil.”
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