Horror cinema is not often viewed as a bastion of artistry. While viewers flock to horror films on opening weekend, especially in October and the winter months, the audience usually consists of teenagers seeking to scare themselves silly—not the sort of discerning cinephiles you’d expect to seek out important artistic cinema. And yet, horror cinema is one of the most innovative genres in modern moviemaking. It may be rigidly conventional on a story basis, but it’s formally daring, often gambling on structural or formal conceits that would be unthinkable in other genres. And perhaps no director better exemplifies the genre’s simultaneous dedication to tradition and appetite for innovation than Ti West.
Ti West was born in Wilmington, Delaware in 1980. He studied at the School of Visual Arts in New York City and got into filmmaking in the early 2000s, directing two short films in 2001: “Prey” and “ The Wicked.” West’s unofficial entry into the horror establishment was his 2005 film-within-a-film, The Roost, about homicidal bats that turn people into zombie-like monsters.
The Roost is an alternatingly goofy and scary variation on well-worn horror conventions. It features young adults stranded in a seemingly ordinary but hostile environment, a misguided attempt to take shelter in the monster’s lair, and an inexplicable monster that turns friends into enemies. West is approximating the late-night horror specials that’d play on TV throughout the 1970s and ’80s—the kinds of programs it’s safe to assume he watched in his formative years. He’s alarmingly accurate in his facsimile. The Roost begins in full frame black and white with Tom Noonan’s Horror Host addressing the viewer. He guides them through a low-rent haunted locale and discusses the horror the viewer is about to witness. The credits for a fake film roll. The title: The Roost—the very film you’re watching. We see some young folks driving down a country road on a way to a party and a bat flies at their windshield. The driver swerves and winds up in a ditch. There’s a barn nearby where they can take refuge, but the owners aren’t home. It’s all downhill from there on out.
The Roost is a bit meta and a bit strange, but West never speaks down to the material. The entire film appears to be a test run for a proper horror feature. It’s West seeing if he can get all the conventions right, hit all the expected notes, so that in the future he can start to play with them. The Roost is not entirely successful as a straight-up horror film. Its scares are predictable and its characterizations overly broad. But that’s the point. It’s like Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon’s The Cabin in the Woods without the meta-commentary or the sanctimoniousness. The key to the slight charm of The Roost is its affection for the material it’s emulating. West isn’t interested in satire or parody here, only pastiche. He’s never above the horror conventions.
The Roost came and went, playing a few festivals and disappearing into the bargain bins of video stores, but it garnered a small, affectionate cult following. He followed it up with Trigger Man (2007), a low-budget horror feature based on a true story about three urbanites hunted down in the Delaware woods. The film suffered from the sophomore slump and did little to further West’s reputation as a budding horror director.
In 2009 he directed the sequel to Eli Roth’s parasitic flesh-eating virus film, Cabin Fever (2002). Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever picks up where Roth’s film left off, with virus-contaminated water bottles making their way to a high school preparing itself for spring prom. Emphasizing the black comedy of the original, West intended the film as a gross-out horror comedy aping the style of John Waters. There’s certainly evidence of this vision in the finished product. Few gross-out horror films outdo Cabin Fever 2 in the area of bodily fluids. From blood to pus to piss to vomit to semen, the film is literally swimming in disgusting liquid. The pure volume of these liquids and their disgusting implementation is occasionally funny and shows evidence of West’s instincts for black comedy. But the majority of the film is bad, leaning too heavily on the misogyny and violent misanthropy that fuels too many low-rent horror. That these characteristics are all but absent in the rest of West’s other films is evidence of the film lacking his authorial vision.
Much of this can be chalked up to the producers artistically sidelining West and changing his vision. There were extensive re-shoots and re-cuts after West had completed the film, the producers and studio apparently displeased with his final product. The resulting film was so disastrous in West’s eyes, he requested to have his name removed from the final film, being replaced by the official pseudonym, “Alan Smithee.” However, since West is not a member of the Director’s Guild of America, his request was denied and he remains credited as the film’s director. The film never received a proper theatrical release and was dumped on home video in 2010.
Luckily, West followed up his worst film with his best, The House of the Devil (2009), one of the best horror films of the new millennium. A masterclass in slow-burn horror, The House of the Devil is a 1980s period piece playing into the “Satanic Panic” of that decade. West filmed it in 16mm to approximate the grainy aesthetic of horror films of the time. As well, him and production designer Jade Healy are meticulous in replicating period detail, from the costumes to the hairstyles to the Walkman the main character uses to the late-night TV shows she watches on the job. The film even sports an amazing eighties-style freeze frame title card: “The House of the Devil” in big yellow letters set over a frozen image of the main character, Samantha (Jocelin Donahue).
The film follows Samantha, a college student desperate for some cash to pay for a new apartment who takes a mysterious babysitting gig at a mansion a little ways out of town. When she arrives at the mansion, the owner, Mr. Ulman (Tom Noonan), explains to her that she won’t actually be babysitting any children, but making sure that nothing happens to his mother, who’ll likely stay in her bedroom upstairs the entire evening. We know that Mr. Ulman isn’t being honest with her. Samantha senses it too. But she’s desperate for the cash and doesn’t see the downside of sitting alone for two hours watching TV in his large mansion. She accepts the job and wastes her time around the house. We know that she’s going to encounter something evil in the house and dread the moment when it’ll happen.
West takes advantage of audience expectations at every turn here. He knows that the viewer is expecting a horror film based off the title. He assumes the viewer’s familiarity with horror conventions and expectation of scares at every turn in the narrative. He knows that the viewer’s mind will be racing to determine what the secret of the house is and that he or she will anticipate and dread Samantha’s eventual discovery of what that secret is. The entire film is a masterful exercise: contained, patient, and unbearably tense.
West understands that the central tension of a film of this sort is the disconnect between the viewer’s knowledge and the character’s knowledge. In horror films, the character is in the dark, but the viewer isn’t. The viewer wants to communicate his or her knowledge to the character, but he or she can’t, creating suspense. And that suspense builds until the character does find out, creating the scare. In horror, everything is borne out of knowledge and perspective.
This aspect of obliviousness is summed up in The House of the Devil in a sequence where Samantha puts in her headphones, cues “One Thing Leads to Another” by The Fixx, and goes dancing around the mansion, unaware of the murderous danger lurking in the dark. It’s a beautiful sequence of youthful abandon, of a young woman enjoying the freedom of her movements and the music in her ears. It’s also perfectly period appropriate, grounding us in the eighties. But most of all it’s tense. Samantha is already oblivious to her danger and the inclusion of her headphones muffling the outside world is the perfect visual distillation of her situation. It only ratchets up the tension. The House of the Devil saw limited theatrical release in 2009, making next to nothing at the box office, but enthusing horror fans and film critics alike.
West’s follow-up to The House of the Devil, The Innkeepers (2011), is equally skillful, if not quite as effective as its predecessor. Another slow-burn horror film, The Innkeepers follows two hotel employees, Claire and Luke (Sara Paxton and Pat Healy), working at an old hotel during the last weekend before it closes permanently. The hotel is supposedly haunted, and Claire and Luke take the slow final weekend as an opportunity to snoop around the hotel and prove whether it truly is home to a vengeful ghost. The film doesn’t take quite as long as The House of the Devil in building to its inevitable horror third act, but it is patient in building the atmosphere and mining every moment of dread. It’s greatest strength is its characters. West spends the entirety of the first act building their relationship, letting us understand what sort of individuals these people are and how they feed off each other’s quirks. This sort of character building is rare in horror films, as is the nuance mined out of their ultimately tragic relationship. The focus on character doesn’t detract from the horror either. West is very comfortable supplying plenty of sight scares and slow-build reveals, and the final shot of the film is a lasting chiller. The Innkeepers saw a limited theatrical release similar to The House of the Devil, receiving warm notices from critics and horror fans alike.
In 2012 West contributed two segments to two different horror anthology films: “Second Honeymoon” to the found footage anthology V/H/S and “M is for Miscarriage” to the alphabetically-oriented The ABCs of Death. In 2013 he made another found footage film, this time a feature, called The Sacrament. The film re-envisions the Jonestown Massacre for the modern day, following two Vice reporters (A.J. Bowen and Joe Swanberg) as they investigate a cultist compound in central Africa run by a charismatic religious leader (Gene Jones). The film plays it too close to the historical record, making the eventual mass suicide—a near exact reenactment of the historical Jonestown incident—too obvious. But that doesn’t mean West fails to mine tension. He supplies the film with his signature slow-burn dread. He also crafts some gorgeous compositions, justifying the found footage aesthetic while finding some new ways to frame images within the subgenre. The Sacrament premiered through video on demand in spring 2014 after playing the festival circuit in late 2013.
West is currently at work on his latest film, In a Valley of Violence, a western produced through Jason Blum’s Blumhouse Productions. Between it and The Sacrament, it looks like he’s moving away from strict horror. If that’s the case, he’ll still have left his mark on the genre. His horror films re-establish classical horror conventions and resist the jump-scare tendencies that dominate the genre today. They emphasize suspense over surprise and atmosphere over gore. Ti West might not be old enough or experienced enough to be a master filmmaker, but he’s done some masterful work in the horror genre. He’s also shown great respect for it, neither dismissing its conventions nor speaking down to its artistic aims. Ti West is the horror director as classicist innovator.