Tag: ti west

The House of the Devil

The House of the Devil (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★

Although this lo-fi horror picture does not push the satanic cult subgenre in new directions, its back-to-basics approach is a welcome change from the more ostentatious, loud, try-hard offerings from less disciplined filmmakers. Writer-director Ti West chooses an economical route: tell the story straight from the moment our heroine takes on a babysitting job up until she has lost everything—which unfolds in just under twenty-four hours. Although the pacing is slow on purpose, there are plenty of details worthy of soaking in should one be willing to look.

Before Samantha (Jocelin Donahue who delivers a terrific performance) sets foot in the house of horrors, we get to know her as a college sophomore who is in desperate need of cash. We learn precisely how much is in her bank account and how much she needs come Monday (the story takes place on a Wednesday) in order to secure a new place. We also get to appreciate why Sam wishes so badly to move out of her dorm; her roommate is a slob and doesn’t care that she gets in the way of other people’s space and time. Greta Gerwig plays Megan, Sam’s best friend who is full of personality.

The film commands a certain look of creepiness, a misty look about it that reminds me of horror films from the late 1970s and early 1980s. This is especially noticeable of scenes shot outdoors. As Sam walks around campus before Christmas break, there is barely anyone around. The camera functions almost like an onlooker, perhaps even a stalker, as she makes her way to a bulletin board, a payphone, her bed, to the restroom where she cries. But taking on this perspective is not meant to be scary or alarming. On the contrary, I felt it captures how lonely Sam must feel sometimes. She’s the quiet, bookish type, always with her walkman on. We wish to protect her because we know what she’s about to walk into.

We meet the employers, Mr. and Mrs. Ulman (Tom Noonan, Mary Woronov), and no effort is made to cover up the fact that they are indeed up to no good. West has fun with these suspicious figures, he at the very least six-foot-five with his cane and she with her stern expression and rather… curious way of phrasing certain things. The assignment is supposed to be minimal work: Just hang out downstairs, order pizza, and be wary of emergencies. Four hours of Sam’s time for $400. Megan claims it is too good to be true. She has no idea how right she is.

Much of the babysitting job involves Sam exploring the house. This is when most viewers who are expecting constant jolts will likely end up frustrated or disappointed. I admired its restraint. Although we hear strange noises, it makes sense that Sam goes to investigate because it is her job to make sure that everything is all right with the person she must care for. There is a door she dares not open, but a masterstroke involves the writer-director revealing to the audience what exactly is behind it. This is a classic case of choosing suspense over horror. To choose horror over suspense would be for Sam to open that door. She reacts and we react, too. She never does. But because we know and she doesn’t, we wriggle in our seats.

“The House of the Devil” is ninety percent setup and ten percent payoff. But that ten percent is memorable, visceral, violent, and cathartic. It is at this point that West proves his project is not simply a nostalgia trip. The denouement is modern and in-your-face but never gratuitous. Chaos ensues but the filmmaker remains control of his craft (none of that camera acrobatics). It is confident from the eye-catching opening credits right down to the unsettling final shot. Here is a movie that wallows in quiet. But when it gets loud, literally and metaphorically, it is almost deafening.

The Sacrament

The Sacrament (2013)
★ / ★★★★

Inspired by what is now known as the Jonestown Massacre, “The Sacrament,” written and directed by Ti West, is well-shot, beautifully photographed at times, but there is not enough payoff—despite the many deaths during the final twenty minutes. What results is an ungainly found footage feature that offers no real scare—not the kind that jumps out at the screen and we are shocked for a split-second, but the more difficult kind: images that will stay in our guts minutes or even hours after it is over.

Patrick (Kentucker Audley) gets a letter from his sister, Caroline (Amy Seimetz), saying that he is welcome to visit the parish that she had joined—a community that helped her to overcome drug addiction. Patrick’s friends, Sam (AJ Bowen) and Jake (Joe Swanberg), who cover provocative stories untouched by the mainstream, decide to tag along. The trio expect to encounter a hippie commune, but minutes after getting off the helicopter, they are greeted with guns and unfriendly faces.

West is a type of filmmaker who is fond of build-up—a quality that I like. I enjoy a screenplay that actively works to give us the creeps which reaches a peak either about or well past halfway through when the veil is quickly taken away and we learn that our suspicion is true—a refreshing step away from so-called twists that are—upon closer examination—nonsensical, illogical, a brazen attempt to get away with cheating, or all of the above. But all this movie has to offer is an adequate rising action.

I can pinpoint the exact moment when it has started to go wrong. The parish is led by a man only referred to as Father (Gene Jones, who gives a convincing performance). Though Sam and Jake are unexpected guests, Father agrees to be interviewed on-camera. Sam plans to go for the jugular by asking questions designed to expose the flaw in the small community, but he finds himself overpowered by a man who not only knows his way around words, he knows how to twist them in such a way that it takes a person by complete surprise and suddenly all defenses are down.

While it is understandable the Sam character feels shaken for a bit during the interview, from the moment he is thrown off his game, the script commits a critical miscalculation of never allowing to get him back up. This is problematic because he is the eye from which we perceive the bizarre story. He is supposed to be a sharp journalist who knows when and how to get what he wants from his subjects. West should have made Sam a more formidable protagonist, someone who can really challenge the villain of the piece. Otherwise, what makes the story interesting?

The final act of the picture is supposed to be horrifying, I guess, but I felt close to nothing. Though suffering is clearly being portrayed on screen, all I saw were people acting, trying their best to emote what they think dying is like or attempting—and failing—to look like dead people. In other words, it comes off as a charade because there is minimal substance that propels what should have been a convincing tragedy.

If the screenplay had been smarter, it would have focused more on the mind that is single-handedly controlling an entire community. Instead, it comes off not knowing a thing about human psychology—let alone fully understanding a mirror-filled, labyrinthine mind of a master manipulator. Perhaps the scariest thing about it is that it is supposed to be a horror film when, really, it is quite flat across the board—inspired by a true story or otherwise.

The ABCs of Death

The ABCs of Death (2012)
★ / ★★★★

To expect all segments of an anthology to be equally worthwhile is tantamount to betting on all participants of a horse race to take first place, but I cannot help but be optimistic. I want all movies, feature length or short film, to be good. After all, I am the one sitting and looking at the screen.

In “The ABCs of Death,” each director is given a letter of the English alphabet and he or she chooses a word that begins with that letter. The word of their choice must be the theme of their respective chapter. What results is a wildly uneven collection, ranging from indescribably egregious trash to compelling piece of art that demands attention.

Out of the twenty-six, about five are worthy of being seen. The best is “Dogfight,” directed by Marcel Sarmiento, which focuses on a fight to the death between a man and a dog. It stands out because it possesses what others lack: control and a distinct style that fits the mood we experience and the images we see. There is no dialogue. The action occurs in slow motion. With each pulsating second, it captures the beast and savagery in a man and an animal. We see the dog’s teeth sink into a man’s flesh; we see a man jab at the animal’s head. The violence is horrific but never gratuitous.

Another that is likely to stay with the viewer is “XXL” by Xavier Gens. It is about a woman who has had it with everyone, including complete strangers on the street, telling her–some go as far as to tease her–that she is fat. One night, she goes to the bathroom with a knife and starts cutting off chunks of flesh so she can be as skinny as the woman on the television commercial. By the end of her self-mutilation, we see her with much less weight. Is she considered to be beautiful then? It is a social commentary.

There is a recurring theme about toilets. Keep in mind that the filmmakers did not discuss their submissions with one another. “Miscarriage” by Ti West is not at all developed–pardon the cruel pun. “Klutz” by Anders Morgenthaler is an amusing animation about a woman at a party who encounters problems in the restroom, but it offers little else. However, “Toilet” by Lee Hardcastle is quite intriguing. The detail of claymation is quite tactile. It is not for children even though it focuses on a little boy who is afraid to use the toilet. When characters die, it is very graphic and there is copious amount of blood. Unlike many of the segments, its energy is infectious. The filmmakers’ love for the craft can be felt.

Most maddening because it is so pointless is John Schnepp’s “WTF?”. In high school, teachers love to assign group projects. What they love even more is selecting members of your group. Well, with each group–it must be some sick joke, I don’t know–there is always at least one person who just doesn’t care. And when he or she miraculously ends up doing something, it is obvious that not a drop of effort is put into it. The title says it all really: random, unoriginal, immature. The images, quite frankly, are ugly and a waste of time.

I could go on about how much I disliked the others, from the exercises of confusion like Andrew Traucki’s “Gravity” and Jake West’s “Speed,” about a surfer who drowns and a woman on the run, respectively, to endurance tests of sick humor like Yudai Yamaguchi’s “Jidai-geki,” focusing on a samurai having second thoughts about killing another, and Yoshihiro Nishimura’s “Zetsumetsu,” which involves a giant penis. These segments treat our time like it is not valuable.

“The ABCs of Death” is depressing not because of the subjects it tackles–or lack thereof–but because it makes a statement–deliberately or otherwise–about the filmmakers involved. If the majority of these auteurs are the future of horror, it must be some sick joke. To me, horror is a craft. There is nothing skillful about bathing someone in blood and putting together disgusting images just to get a reaction. It is puerile trash.


V/H/S (2012)
★ / ★★★★

“V/H/S” is composed of six segments with a unifier titled “Tape 56” where four friends are able to make money by recording with a video camera, stalking women, and forcing them to expose themselves. The videos are then posted online for the world to see. A fan who claims to have seen their work on the internet contacts the group offering a nice paycheck if they are able to break into a house and steal a VHS tape. Naturally, they accept the offer because it has made apparent that these guys will do anything for money. When they get inside the house, however, they find a dead older gentleman sitting in dark room in front of several televisions. One of the guys decides to watch the tapes while his friends explore the basement.

The scariest thing about this film is its prospect of becoming a new trend or franchise. As a whole, it is neither scary nor thrilling; written with neither creativity nor zest; and executed with neither love for its characters nor love for film. It’s as if a group of so-called filmmakers decided to come together and conclude that it would be a fabulous idea to take a sickness from a dark corner in their minds, make it a reality, and pass it off as “art.”

I love horror movies because if they are well-made, they stimulate my mind and heart like no other genre can, but watching the contents of “V/H/S” is a depressing experience with its recurring images of women being cut up and mutilated. While men do experience deaths, notice that the camera places shorter attention on a male with blood on his body than a female. Like in “Amateur Night,” directed by David Bruckner, men meet their gruesome demise in the dark while in “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger,” directed by Joe Swanberg, the woman’s torso area being sliced open is front and center. There is a surplus of other similar examples that can easily be found in the other segments. The film insidiously communicates a hatred of women and implies that’s it’s all right to relish a girl exposing herself and languishing in violence.

There is one segment I enjoyed highly. On “Second Honeymoon,” written and directed by Ti West, a couple (Joe Swanberg, Sophia Takal) goes on a road trip and makes a stopover at the Grand Canyon. They eventually plan on going to Las Vegas so Sam can play some craps. I admired it because the horror is more subdued and is actually relatable. Sam and Stephanie stay in motels during the night. During one of those nights, a girl (Kate Lyn Sheil) knocks on their door and asks if they can give her a ride in the morning. Points for West for allowing Sam to express the uneasiness he feels after speaking with the hitchhiker. We’ve all experienced talking with a stranger and feeling that something about them is just a bit off. The segment has a sense of humor, too. Stephanie investigating the dirtiness of the motel room–dust, stains, and all–is a horror story in itself. Admittedly, the segment deserves a much better ending.

What “Tuesday the 17th,” directed by Glenn McQuaid, and “10/31/98,” directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett, Justin Martinez, et al., have in common is that they both have numbers on their titles. The other is that they are both a waste of space and time. With the anthology’s two-hour running time, it could have done without the pair’s stupidity and predictability. For instance, as you begin to suspect that a character running in the woods is going to trip and fall (on a branch, no less), he does. When you think that something will pop up on a corner with an accompanying “scary” music, it does. What is the point of sitting through a movie when your mind is always ten steps ahead of it?

“V/H/S” is pessimistic. I have a special disdain for movies of its type. I haven’t even begun talking about how the screen is frequently full of glitches, conveniently ubiquitous when a scary thing happens, pummeling us over the head with, “You’re watching a VHS tape so it needs to look like the tracking has to be adjusted!” But I think you get the idea.

The Innkeepers

The Innkeepers (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★

Since their boss was on vacation in Barbados, Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) thought it would be a great idea to capture a concrete paranormal activity, via audio and video recordings, in the Yankee Pedlar Inn, its last weekend being open for business due to a lack of customers. The place had a reputation of being haunted by the spirit of Madeline O’Malley, a woman who committed suicide after her fiancé stood her up on their wedding day. The inn had only three guests: a woman (Alison Bartlett) with her son (Jake Ryan) in tow because she had a fight with her husband and an actress, Leanne (Kelly McGillis), who was supposed to attend a convention. During Claire’s graveyard shift, she might just get her wish of encountering a ghost as she started to hear sounds of someone playing the piano on the first floor. What I found most curious about “The Innkeepers,” written and directed by Ti West, was its willingness to spend time with its characters instead of focusing on delivering one scare after another. Because their job was not much of a challenge, Luke and Claire played practical jokes on one another and eventually we began to question whether their friendship was strictly professional. Both the flirtation and the old-fashioned inn had its charms to the point where I started to think it may not be too bad actually working there. Claire and Luke seemed to be fun people to hang out with, mainly in that they were able to deliver and endure pranks, and the place reminded me of an infant version of Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.” By focusing on the minutiae of the job: delivering towels, escorting a guest to his room, taking out the trash, our subconscious were able to create a mental map of the haunted inn. Inevitably, when the characters started to run away after encountering something rather unexplainable, we had an idea of where they may be running toward. The picture was so detail-oriented that we were even given a chance to explore, even for just a bit, Luke’s website, an archive of paranormal happenings in the Yankee Pedlar. The website, too, had its charm, resembling a now-extinct Expage template that reminded me of my former Lizzie McGuire website, tacky icons and all. The scares were scant but most were executed effectively. I enjoyed that they had variation. Sometimes we were able to see a ghost in the background. At times, though, it was front and center. But then there were other times when only the characters saw something. For instance, in one of the most effectively drawn-out scenes, Luke faced Claire as they sat in the basement and summoned Madeline. Claire began to look increasingly terrified and Luke asked, even though he might have had an idea, what was wrong. We were left to wonder whether it was just another prank or if there really was something behind Luke. However, the ending could have used some work not necessarily in terms of content, though it could have been much stronger, but pacing. It felt too rushed, Horror 101, which did not match the elegance and organic feel of the rest of the picture. Nevertheless, “The Innkeepers” was a nice treat because it treated us like we didn’t have ADD. It’s a fine example that subtlety mixed with charm goes a long way.

Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever

Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever (2009)
★ / ★★★★

When water from a lake infected with rapid flesh-eating bacteria was introduced into an unsuspecting high school’s prom, the government locked the students inside and left them to die. There was John (Noah Segan), a future doctor who was in love with Cassie (Alexi Wasser) but whenever the two got close, her boyfriend with serious anger issues (Marc Senter) left John cowering in his shoes. Alex (Rusty Kelley), John’s best friend, had sex in the brain and was willing to get it from just about anybody. What “Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever,” directed by Ti West, needed was a spark of creativity and a bit of vision. All the high school students portrayed in the movie were one-dimensional. They were like zombies as they walked in the halls and their conversations left no lasting impact. They were at Point X and they wanted to get to Point Y. Their one and only path was Trajectory XY. So when the flesh-eating bacteria began its bloody horror, while we were left horrified and disgusted, mostly the latter, we just didn’t care for the characters. Given that John wanted to be a doctor some day, I expected a lot from him. The writers, Ti West, Randy Pearlstein and Joshua Malkin, should have given John a scientific approach in terms of dealing with the bacteria. The picture could have benefited from several scenes when John was able to take a sample of the bacteria in the blood and looked at its processes under a microscope. Given that chemistry class, naturally equipped with microscopes and slides especially since, from what it seemed, the students were in a private school, was only a couple of doors away, not learning about the disease was a missed opportunity. The majority of the first film took place in a remote cabin by the lake. They couldn’t possibly learn anything about the disease because they didn’t have any equipment. Here was a vastly different setting but it was uninspired. It was more concerned about delivering the blood, the pus, and the sexual escapades of the doomed teenagers. And what about Deputy Winston (Giuseppe Andrews), the idiotic cop who was lucky enough to survive from the first movie? He was left running around but we had no idea what he was up to. He was a cowardly clown and when the film cut to his scenes, the tension that accumulated from the scene prior decreased at an exponential rate. With a stronger writing and if the film had focused only on the prom and the infected students inside, it could have passed as slightly mediocre. But with the extended scenes involving a high school stripper, I was left very confused.