Marcus and Tomas encounter a new possession, or perhaps a hoax. Andy experiences a strange event.
Trigger Man. 2007. Directed, Edited, & Written by Ti West.
Starring Reggie Cunningham, Ray Sullivan, Sean Reid, Heather Robb, James Felix McKenney, Seth Abrams, & Larry Fessenden.
KINO International/Glass Eye Pix/Scareflix/CCR Productions.
Unrated. 80 minutes.
This is a slightly unusual film out of Ti West’s filmography. He is a great director, in my opinion. You either dig him, or you don’t; no middle ground. And that’s fine, if everybody liked the same thing we’d be a boring lot of humans. For those of us who enjoy West and his brand of horror, Trigger Man comes as a surprise. I remember listening to an interview he did talking about how this film sort of came up on a whim. He wrote a script, brought it to Larry Fessenden, and then they had time to shoot it, so a real indie shoot came about. Ultra low budget. Almost rogue-style filmmaking.
Apart from the visual feel and the actual use of digital rather shooting on film, West looks at a more dramatic thriller angle than anything horror. Sure, the horror of humanity comes out. That’s a huge element. Most of his movies, aside from recently with The Sacrament, tend to go for classic horror elements while he does his best to subvert expectations, keeping with the spirit of indie film. Trigger Man works because it doesn’t necessarily try to change anything. It works by building up an atmosphere of dread, each scene slowly, steadily amping up the feeling that at any moment a horrible event is about to take place. True to what later became signature to his personal directorial style, West slow burns through his plot before reaching a nicely executed finale. Then if the terror isn’t enough for you concerning real people and their sometimes hideous actions in this raw look at a story that’s not unbelievable in the slightest, maybe I’m weak. Maybe I should hang up the ole horror hat.
Nah. I dig this one. It isn’t near perfect. However, West makes me sweat enough throughout this sparse flick that I can’t help watching it now and then. It’s a tough one to find on DVD, but luckily I picked it up last year. I’ll always support West’s films and I can admit when there are faults. I refuse to not acknowledge a solid low budget thriller when it’s in front of my face. You shouldn’t expect his best, though don’t sell West short here.
This movie was never intended to be on a grand scale. West had the time and wanted to make something with a very minimalist take, so instead of opting to shoot on film (as he usually does) he went digital. The entire film is much different from any of his other work, even his early feature The Roost. With a handheld and kinetic style, West uses this feel to create as much tension possible. If anything, this is a nice exercise in suspense. You can judge this for being low budget and all that, but it wasn’t ever meant to be anything more. Larry Fessenden, a mentor of West’s in the industry, gave him about $10K to make it. They found some nice locations, kept the cast to a bare minimum. West had a small story that worked for the basic needs. Nobody’s expecting a reinvention of the genre. Part of me enjoys Trigger Man because West isn’t exactly swinging for the fences, as he so often does with his other brilliant features. Here, he does his best at cultivating a specific mood of tension that worms its way through the short 80 minute runtime. Many might not find the finale rewarding. I do. The tension pays off in an excellent way and I find it properly horrifying. Along the way we’re treated to a couple smatterings of blood, one particularly chunky, gross practical effect honestly looks real. I found that one unsettling, in the best kind of horror way.
Ultimately, I don’t know if there’s even a lick of truth to the concept that West claims this is inspired by a true story. If so, I’d love to see what the real scenario was, how it played out, what exactly went down the whole time. But forgetting all that this is still a real-feeling situation. These guys essentially wander into the path of something over which they have no control. Then it’s a sort of city dweller v. backwoods story that descends into utter nastiness. Part of the ultra-realism is the sound design by Graham Reznick. When these guys are out in the midst of the forest, near the river, running for their lives, we get the feeling of being right next to them, as the river rushes and their voices carry. Some likely find that annoying, which I totally understand. To me, these elements only add to the extremely raw atmosphere. There’s also not so much a score as there is this wonderfully ambient noise from Jeff Grace . At times that does morph into something more musical in terms of short pieces that accompany specific moments. Still, the best parts Grace offers up are these brutish shrieks and hypnotizing swirls of sound that wrap you up then rattle you; almost representative of the mental processes going on in someone’s head were they in such a life threatening, insane situation as these guys. Everything is minimal. The story is contained. The blood is gruesome when it comes, but only comes in a couple little bursts. The camera work consists of digital handheld shooting, nothing fancy; only once or twice do we get shots that are motionless, everything else keeps the chaotic pace by wavering and keeping on the move with the characters, zooming from the landscape to their faces and expressions of fear. The music is kept down to a handful of places where it’s nearly perfect. Through and through, Trigger Man is a utilitarian production that if anything knows how to use its bare necessities and structures itself accordingly.
You’ll either dig it a bit, or find it unappealing. There’s really nothing halfway about Trigger Man. Similar to the way people seem to feel about its director. Personally, Ti West is someone I find incredibly talented. He and I are close in age, so part of my affinity for his work has to do with the fact many of the movies he seems to admire and have grown up watching are the same ones as myself. Because of that they reflect in his own work, in turn capturing my attention. Not only that, though. West is simply a great director. He makes interesting choices, as well as the fact he’s an interesting writer. Preferring to take things slow, his films are sometimes categorized as being boring. A word I’ll never use in reference to any of his features. But to each their own. For me, he’s a fascinating artist that often takes a genre story we know and brings his unique vision to a story in order to freshen things up. Trigger Man doesn’t necessarily liven the survival thriller sub-genre. It does excite and keep you on edge, or at least it does for me. Give this one the chance, it’s a taut piece of work. Ignore the flaws and get past the handheld stuff. West is a scary guy, no matter if he’s working within the walls of a haunted hotel, dealing with vampire bats that turn people into the living dead, or wandering the forest with people running for their lives. It’s all spooky.
The House of the Devil. 2009. Directed & Written by Ti West.
Starring Jocelin Donahue, Tom Noonan, Mary Woronov, Greta Gerwig, AJ Bowen, Dee Wallace, Heather Robb, Darryl Nau, Brenda Cooney, Danielle Noe, Mary B. McCann, John Speredakos, Lena Dunham, and Graham Reznick. MPI Media Group/Constructovision/RingtheJing Entertainment/Glass Eye Pix. Rated R. 95 minutes.
Ti West is one of the modern horror directors I think you could say is an auteur in his own right. All of his films have a similar feel, maybe all aside from The Sacrament, as in they’re all done on film (again aside from the aforementioned last of his films to come out), they have the full, rich look of movies from the 1970s and 1980s. Not only that, West is great at drawing out the tension of a film to create atmosphere and to setup excellent uses of suspense.
The House of the Devil is no exception. I’d actually seen this before any of his other work before, and loved it so much I went back to see anything else he’d done I could get my hands on. The Roost is a highly underrated indie horror gem, even Trigger Man – an early attempt at shooting digitally – has its merits. Since then he’s done The Sacrament, of which I’m a big fan, and another fun little spooky flick called The Innkeepers. Loves titles starting with The!
With this movie, West throws back to the ’70s/’80s Golden Age of Horror, not deliberately making a period piece but still harkening directly back to that time by use of similar techniques, camerawork, music, and aesthetic filmmakers were in the habit of using. Essentially, The House of the Devil ends up as West’s scary love letter to movies he grew up, the vibe of filmmaking happening at the time which influenced him, as well as he gives us a slow burn horror rooted in the false Satanic Panic especially prevalent during the 1980s. If you don’t like a slower paced film, this won’t be for you at all. If you don’t mind letting a horror build, letting it grow on you, then give it a shot; you will not regret it.
Trying to get out on her own, away from terrible roommate living, college student Samantha Hughes (Jocelin Donahue) ends up taking a mysterious job babysitting for Mr/Mrs. Ulman (Tom Noonan & Mary Woronov). Mysterious due to the fact the Ulmans don’t have a child. The job is, in reality, for Mrs. Ulman’s mother who lives with them. After some negotiating, Samantha gets a massive payday all for a single night. Her friend Megan (Greta Gerwig) tags along to make sure everything is fine, and though not entirely satisfied she leaves Samantha at the house, almost literally in the middle of nowhere with the Ulmans.
And once they leave, Samantha slowly begins to feel as if something isn’t quite right in the big old house. Not to mention a young man named Victor (AJ Bowen) blasts Megan’s face off just a little ways down the road.
Nobody ever told Samantha babysitting would could be so hard.
There are lots of things to admire about The House of the Devil. While big films often try to go for period looks – such as how Martin Scorsese for instance did the different portions of his Howard Hughes biopic The Aviator according to how films looked at various instances throughout the 20th century – it is’t often an independent movie, horror at that, will try and emulate the particular look of certain decades. West not only shot this on film, but 16mm film, which gives it a great look that was very popular in the 1980s. Other ways West achieves his retro feel is through the zooms, nowadays a technique you’ll mostly see done through use of a dolly shot. Even right at the beginning with the freeze frame on Samantha, music playing, movie title in big block letters; totally ’80s style, through and through. Down to the fact this was the only movie since A History of Violence in 2005 which got released on VHS in one of the clamshell style cases, this is a unique and fun indie horror. So there’s a quaint charm about West’s film I feel gets lost on a lot of people who don’t care about any of that. Should you care? Well, that’s totally subjective. Me, I think there’s a certain artistry involved with all the care that goes into making a movie into more than just a movie, but instead making it become an experience. The House of the Devil, for me, has always been a solid horror while also very much being a horrifying experience all around because of its style.
When Samantha puts her ear close to the door, asking if “everything’s all right in there”, the slow and brief reveal West gives us of the Satanic-like markings, the bloodied corpses on the floor is shocking. It’s not shocking like the scene is going to make you gasp, or lose your breath and hide away. This shot and the scene is shocking in that you’re not expecting such blatant nastiness right behind the door. Even how slow West shows us what’s in the room is incredible, as I was expecting something more along the lines of the ‘mother’ in the dark, looking sinister in the corner, or anything close to that. Instead, it’s a pretty ballsy visual, such that West announces at this moment things are definitely going to start getting savage. At some point, anyways. Afterwards there are more moments of horror later like this, and also some key shots of very dreamy imagery in certain scenes. Generally, West strikes a nice balance between these two methods.
When Samantha discovers the full extent of what’s happening in the house (think: drinking blood from a horned skull), the plot takes us into the depths of horror. Mixing subtle creepiness with plenty solid doses of nasty violence, the finale of the film plays out with pumping adrenaline in a sequence washed with blood. In particular, a few shots remind me of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, almost homage-like cuts to a hooded demonic character much like how Friedkin made several subliminal cuts to the Pazuzu demon in his film.
Most of all, I found the atmosphere of the film combined with the characters pretty damn eerie. Such as the Ulman family themselves. First there’s Tom Noonan whose creepiness knows no bounds, never once calling back to his stint as The Tooth Fairy a.k.a Francis Dolarhyde in Michael Mann’s Manhunter, which is an unfair criticism of his acting I often see when he plays in horror movies; here, his character is all its own and he plays it quietly with great nuance. Then Mary Woronov does a spectacularly unsettling job with the character of Mrs. Ulman, even in the brief time she’s actually onscreen. Of course, Jocelin Donahue as Samantha is a perfect fit – she’s an ongoing yet at times quiet sort of person, but there’s a strength Donahue gives the character which is really great and adds something to the story. Throw in AJ Bowen and Greta Gerwig as interesting, smaller characters, and I’ve got to say West’s screenplay is a tight one with plenty of intrigue and none of the heavy, sagging exposition of other horror movies trying to spell every last thing out through dialogue.
This is a great film, 5 stars in my book. Ti West could’ve done a typical slasher with this, however, he opts to draw on his biggest influences from the ’70s/’80s and some of the real life yet fake claims of Satanic Ritual Abuse from decades ago, crafting a unique indie horror experience. Great and classic sensibilities show in the way West handles his directorial duties, as well as his writing. I can’t say anything else except for: watch it. Maybe you won’t dig it. But those who are into a slow burn, atmospheric type of horror, it’s full of that and it’s only a little over an hour.
Let me know what you think of the movie in the comments below, as long as you can be civil and have a proper talk!
The Roost. 2005. Directed & Written by Ti West.
Starring Tom Noonan, Karl Jacob, Vanessa Horneff, Sean Reid, Wil Horneff, Barbara Wilhide, Richard Little, John Speredakos, and Larry Fessenden. Glass Eye Pix.
Unrated. 80 minutes.
In my recent review of Ti West’s The Innkeepers, I mentioned being a huge fan of him generally. So just keep that in mind. Maybe I’m biased; I still try to be a little objective when considering how others might look at the same film I’m looking at.
I don’t think this is a perfect movie, but it’s honestly one of my favourite horror feature debuts from a filmmaker in the genre. There’s a criminally low rating for this movie on IMDB – though, I personally don’t care about the ratings on any sites, let alone that one. While I spend a fair amount of time on there trying to even out the scores as best I can with my own, what I believe to be decent, ratings, I still don’t give much heed to it overall; mostly it’s a good database. You’ll see a lot of West’s films, most of them, have an underrated presence on IMDB. Because those people are sleeping, man. This guy is one of the greatest in horror today. He moves out from simple concepts, usually incorporating very personal relationships or at least characters who are relatable to an audience, then the horror takes hold. Basically, any horror writer – whether screenwriter or novelist or short story writer, et cetera – would tell you that’s part of what scares them: taking things to a personal level, the bringing on the horror. Many other horror filmmakers, particularly of the indie variety, try to do this, it’s no big secret. I believe, however, Ti West is simply better than the herd at making those types of excellent horror films.
While there’s a ton of old school sensibility in him elsewhere, I think so much of his 1970s/1980s influence comes through with The Roost simply because of the way there’s a frame narrative with the old school horror show on cable access and it leads into the real film itself. Right from then on, it feels like you’re watching an old school horror movie. That gives the movie a different style, something not entirely common these days, and within that I find it all pretty damn charming. Y’know, in that creepy horror charm sort of sense.
Starting with a late night horror t.v program on a local cable station, the host (Tom Noonan) introduces us to The Roost, the latest film playing on Cable 13.
A group of friends are on their way to see some friends get married. While heading along the road, they end up stranded. At a lonely farm out in the middle of nowhere, cornfields and the whole nine yards, the lost group end up coming face to face with what lays in the darkness of the farm’s barn.
Inside the old structure there are terrifying creatures of the night. Now, they seem to be waking up, and as night falls they’re looking for something on which to feed.
Something I love is how Ti West does these awesome edits with both visuals and sound. First, we get a SCREAM which happens during a transition from the barn out to the car, where and older woman is waiting for her husband to come back; it’s on the radio, but the way West crosses over to that bit is excellent. For a split second I honestly was waiting for someone to come running, or something. Effective, brief moment. Secondly another comes when the old woman wanders into the dark of the barn, then this sound starts to come that you almost feel is coming out of the shadows, yet it cuts to one of the friends standing behind the now broken down car revving, brake lights shining red in his face, and the sound has actually been the car the whole time. These are little simple bits people often don’t think of, however, when they’re used appropriately to put the audience on a tense edge, waiting for something, anything to happen, it’s a killer move. West uses these in a way other horror filmmakers might use jump scares – instead of frightening us, it simply ratchets up the tension and creates an unsettling, edgy mood.
Being his first feature, I think West does a wonderful job creating atmosphere in The Roost. It’s something I find pervades all his films, even when he switched it up most recently in The Sacrament with found footage style. He’s great with setting up tension and executing suspenseful sequences in order to build up that atmosphere, setting an evident tone. Each of his movies have it, which is partly why I think he’s one of those important filmmakers in horror today; more than that, genre filmmaking in general.
Also, there’s a degree of playfulness at times I think is essential in certain horror movies. Creature features being one of them. I always love when a movie featuring killer-somethings (in this case BATS) has a good dose of dark humour. One little scene I love is when one of the guys sneaks up behind the girl, about to scare her, but he stops short as if disappointed she didn’t even turn around like she couldn’t hear him coming; then he lightly taps her, scaring her anyways. It made me cackle for a second. Good bit.
Moreover, the guy is a pretty good writer. In my opinion, anyways. As a fellow writer, I like the way he writes characters because I find them personable. I’ve seen a lot of people say his movies have all these “hipster” characters, this and that, but whatever man. I don’t see that at all. The way I perceive most of his characters is that they’re real people, genuine; not characters in that sense really, rather actual people. Not to sound cheesy. There are a lot of writers capable of doing this, he’s just one. It’s something I love in horror, though, as a believable character in a film is more likely to draw me into their emotions, the plot, and the overall story. Here in The Roost we get those inescapable dynamics of friendship, particularly it’s amplified with the upcoming wedding to which they’re all headed, and even further compounded by the fact the car breaks down and they find themselves stranded out in the middle of nowhere. Probably one thing I dig so much about the script and the writing, I think West sets up a great situation with which he can play around in with the characters before introducing the creatures and the HORROR and the BLOOD!
I personally dig the whole vampire bats turning people into zombie-like reanimated corpses. Some online seem to suggest it’s no good. Me, on the other hand, I thought it worked very well. Creepy stuff at times. One scene shows the old woman from early in the movie, now obviously bitten by the bats and taken over, just behind a character in the window. It’s a nice little moment where you dread what may be coming next.
This whole aspect also makes it more than a mere creature feature. The creatures are affecting the humans and then the whole friendship dynamic is tested, as they all try not to succumb to the murderous infectious bats flying all around the farm’s property.
Even better than that, Ti West treats us to a good helping portion of makeup effects. Lots of nice practical work here, as the effects fall in line with everything else old school-feeling about The Roost. Love the blood and gory stuff because it really does feel like an ’80s movie. The effects are good, they just bring me back to the older horror where most everything was practical and we didn’t have to suffer through movies made up of CGI blood and CGI green-screen’d stuff constantly. West does well with taking things back to a more simple time in several ways here, this being one of them.
Finally, I love the narrative framing device of the horror show. Tom Noonan is amazing, as always. Very unsettling and creepy. Simultaneously, he’s hilarious. I didn’t exactly like the end of this part either at the finale, however, the whole thing is good fun. Real nice way to showcase an indie horror adding in this cable access style show.
All in, I think this is definitely a 4 out of 5 star horror movie. While I don’t particularly care for the last shot, and not every actor was the greatest. there’s enough here in Ti West’s feature debut that I can say it’s a solid outing. The writing holds up, as well as the fact he relies on an atmosphere of tension and practical effects to sell the horror.
You can do A LOT worse when it comes to horror, certainly when it comes down to the creature feature sub-genre. This is a great modern creature horror movie. See it if you can; the DVD is pretty damn awesome. Love the look and feel of this film, and dig the horror it dishes out!
The Innkeepers. 2011. Directed & Written by Ti West.
Starring Sara Paxton, Pat Healy, Kelly McGillis, Alison Bartlett, Jake Ryan, Brenda Cooney, George Riddle, John Speredakos, and Lena Dunham. Glass Eye Pix.
Rated R. 101 minutes.
Every time I’ve got a particular bias going into a review, one that I can recognize, I always like to take a moment to recognize that. Such is the case with myself and Ti West. I love his work, even when others tell me personally they don’t like a movie of his I can’t help but find myself thinking “Why the hell not?”. I just love his movies. Years ago I got the chance to see The Roost, which I thought was a clever genre film and a gnarly creature feature horror movie. After that I had him on my radar, then as soon as I’d seen that out he came with The House of the Devil, and that one floored me; an overall amazing aesthetic, harkening back to the best of the 1980s, this is a slow burn horror with that Satanic Panic edge. After that I secured a copy of Trigger Man and, while much different than his other films, I enjoyed it. Even later, after he did this movie, his segment in the first V/H/S was probably my favourite – “Second Honeymoon” – his “M is for Miscarriage” out of The ABCs of Death was a saucy piece of raw, reality driven horror. Perhaps my favourite of all his work, The Sacrament is an obvious re-telling of the Jonestown Massacre yet using found footage and the VICE News name he makes it into so much more, something visceral and savage.
So, have you got an understanding of how much I’m a fan of Ti West? Maybe that paints my view of The Innkeepers a little too subjectively. Who knows. Either way, I think this is a fun little ghost story in a spooky location. It’s got a good atmosphere, something to which West is no stranger at pulling together. As well as the fact Pat Healy and Sara Paxton give good performances which are effective and at the same time quirky, but not so quirky you want to roll the eyes out of the back of your head. This film has charm, darkness, and even a few good old fashioned horror jump scares.
In the last few days before the Yankee Pedlar Inn closes down forever, two employees – Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) – attempt to find evidence of the ghost of a woman named Madeline O’Malley (Brenda Cooney) who supposedly haunts the halls. They’re amateur ghost hunters; Luke runs a website about Pedlar’s apparent hauntings, Claire just dropped out of college.
As the last few guests arrive for a stay at the Pedlar, Claire in particular gets closer and closer to the spirit of Madeline, whose story is a sad one; how and why she ended up trapped at the hotel in the afterlife. But once Claire gets a little too close, things may change – and definitely for the worse.
One unique little scene/shot I love is when Claire (Paxton) is using the recording equipment. The first moment is so cool, as the camera tracks along as if on a soundwave, moving slowly around almost wandering. The music and everything make this a creepy little bit, even with nothing creepy happening. I think this is the first scene where Ti West begins to set up a definitive atmosphere and tone for the scarier bits of the film.
The music gives way to more of a silence, a dim hum, some static, while watching Claire listening in another room than the one previous. This also leads into Claire discovering a presence in the big dining room, a piano playing softly amongst the hum of the static in her headphones. Nice little scene following her as she finds the piano itself around the lobby and watches it play by itself. Or rather it bangs the keys by itself. Spooky and an effective jump scare.
Really dig the score for The Innkeepers. Sure enough, when I looked up the composer it was Jeff Grace. For those who may not know, Grace has worked on some incredible stuff. Most recently he’s composed scores for Jim Mickle’s Cold in July and We Are What We Are, Night Moves, Mickle’s Stake Land, Meek’s Cutoff. Then he’s done other probably lesser known films – though they ought to be more recognized – such as Bitter Feast, The House of the Devil, The Last Winter, Joshua, and another of Ti West’s again The Roost.
Part of any great horror, in my opinion, is a solid score to help with the atmosphere. Grace’s excellent music feels very haunted house worthy. This is, essentially, a haunted house horror movie. Instead of a house, we’re getting the Yankee Pedlar Inn, which is just as creepy in the end. Grace does a good job with ambient noise, strings, and some electronic sounds in aiding the direction of West to supply a nice feeling from start to finish. At times it grabs us, gripping hold and not letting go, other times it lulls us into a spooky mood or a false sense of security before a nice scare; proper horror score.
Aside from the lead characters played by Healy and Paxton, I couldn’t get enough of the fact West included Kelly McGillis in the cast. What a wonderful surprise. Most known for her work in the ’80s like Witness, Top Gun, and The Accused, in the past few years she’s been a part of the indie horror revival. Particularly, after being cast in Stake Land by Jim Mickle, McGillis put in a performance here, as well as in the remake of We Are What We Are again from Mickle. So I love that she’s been a part of these films. She adds a great air of authenticity, I’m not sure what it is, but there’s an elegant quality to her; no matter the character. One of those classy older women with a lot of grace, at the same time there’s something sassy and fun about her, too. Here her turn as an actress turned psychic is a good show, wonderful addition and she works great opposite Paxton.
Which leads me to Pat Healy and Sara Paxton. They’ve got real good chemistry in their scenes, reminding me of employee-employee relationships I’ve had at jobs in the past. What I love is that they aren’t two characters of the same age, like two young people. Having the character of Luke (Healy) as a bit of an older guy compared to Claire (Paxton) made for a more interesting relationship between the two, in opposition to so many horror movies featuring all young, teenage-ish characters with the same attitudes, same inflections in their voice, same problems and lives. Not saying it’s some revolutionary tactic, but I do think it was a smart writing move on the part of West, who could’ve easily strayed into complete typicalness. Rather, here he gives us two fun, weird characters who’ve got an equally fun, weird relationship.
Paxton is my favourite, though. Because so often horror movies have characters that do not feel real. Claire, on the other hand, feels real to me, she’s a new college dropout, she works at an old school hotel that’s shutting down after one last weekend. There’s a sort of angst built up inside Claire that I understand; a lot of people could understand her. Yet she isn’t some snotty young girl or anything, merely she gives me that sense of being a woman who is straddling the edge of being young – a woman, maybe not totally prepared to become one.
Most likely the greatest part of The Innkeepers is how Ti West shot it on film. I mean, I don’t have anything against digital, not in the slightest. That being said, there’s something to be said for movies still shot on film. There’s a depth to it, perhaps that’s the best way I can describe it – a fullness – that isn’t always present when shooting on digital. I don’t know, I could be talking out my ass. My love for the look of film has to do with a richness, a broader spectrum of what it can capture. This provides West the opportunity here to frame so many wonderful shots and catch every last bit of it in lush, dark detail. Makes a haunted house horror movie creepier. Honestly, I think that’s part of why so many found footage horrors ultimately fall flat is because on digital the exposure issues end up blocking out so much of a frame that, at times, this renders much of what’s in the frame not as creepy as it might have been had the movie been shot with film. With this movie, it helps West insisted on using film because there are a lot of wonderfully constructed shots here which pull their style from out of every corner of the frame.
I think some of the complaints about The Innkeepers seem to revolve around the fact there’s not a HUGE amount of ghost activity or full-on horror. However, I’d say to those detractors that it isn’t mean to be that sort of film. If you want that type of haunted house horror, stick with even something more like Insidious – West works more here at mood and tone than anything else, and I think that’s totally fine. There are most CERTAINLY a few classic horror movie scares, both of the jumpy variety and real tense, suspenseful moments. They don’t come in spades, it’s a slow burn film. Regardless, to me the all-out scary stuff here pays off because West does a good job slowly cultivating a spooky atmosphere.
With a slow and deliberate style – aided by great editing – a creepy backstory that isn’t served up for us like a prequel within the movie itself but rather alluded to appropriately, and good writing/directing, Ti West’s The Innkeepers is a pretty solid haunted house horror. 4.5 out of 5 stars on this one, all the way. Again, as I started out in this review, I could be biased towards West and his films because I’m such a hardcore fan of his. I don’t think so, though, because there’s just something special about his filmmaking to me. He has old school sensibilities while also bringing a modern, fresh edge to his subjects at the same time.
If you haven’t yet seen anything by West, I suggest starting with The Roost if you can find a DVD copy; worth it. Afterwards, move on to this, The House of the Devil, The Sacrament, and see if there’s anything about him you’ll agree with me on. I know others who feel he’s decent but nothing special. Me? I think he’s one of the new hopes for horror cinema and genre filmmaking, right alongside Adam Wingard (The Guest, You’re Next, A Horrible Way to Die).
Apocalyptic. 2014. Directed & Written by Glen Triggs. Starring Jane Elizabeth Barry, David Macrae, and Geoff Pinfield. Dark Epic Films. Unrated. 84 minutes. Drama/Horror
A lot of people seem to have had more than their fill of found footage. Me – I’m not quite done with the sub-genre. Of course, that’s me, I like to wring the life out of something until there’s no fun left in it anymore. Not really, I just try not rush and judge something by its predecessors before giving it a full chance.
Unfortunately there’s nothing in Apocalyptic that was worth waiting for, in any way. I’m always a sucker for a good, creepy poster, and the first one I’d seen is not the one I used here – it has a shot of some frenzied, bloody-mouthed person running into the frame. I thought it was decent, but certainly a poster is nothing by which to judge a film.
The premise is pretty simple – a pair of filmmakers, Jodie (Jane Elizabeth Barry) and Kevin (Geoff Pinfield) are going to get a first-person perspective on some sort of cult-like religious group, all under the care and eye of Michael (David Macrae), who is himself fairly unsettling. Things are strange from the start when they come into the woods where this group lives and are met by two females, one older than the other and both dressed in the same attire, and then they are lead towards the house where they live in the country to meet Michael. They learn Michael picks one of the women around the dinner table after they eat, and that one must go with him, staying with Michael through the night. Naturally, the situation deteriorates, as Jodie notices one night that Michael picks a very, very underage girl, and off they go to the bedroom as if nothing is out of the ordinary. From this moment on, nothing is the same as it was before.
Basically there isn’t much of anything that makes this film worthwhile. All I can say is that there are some really wonderful looking shot, gorgeous to see in an eerie, spooky sense, but there is little-to-no substance throughout Apocalyptic. For instance, (SPOILER AHEAD) once the big moment of the stoning comes later in the film there is almost no suspense or true tension to keep us tethered to the characters/plot emotionally, and it comes off terribly. I don’t like to rag on a film by being too cheeky, but man, was this part ever poorly pulled off. It could’ve carried at least some weight, instead it’s just like a big metaphorical premature ejaculatory incident caught on film. The camerawork in the scene is bad – and yes, it’s found footage, but there’s no need for it to be unwatchable, there are plenty of these types of movies where it’s not all shaky camera angles and garbled frames – and the acting is poor, and the whole look of it effects wise is just kind of embarrassing as far as I’m concerned. This scene could’ve come off as a whopper and really freaked people out, but it is far from that type of moment.
Worst of all is the climax of the film, at the finale. Apocalyptic‘s final ten minutes plays out like a bad rendition of Jonestown, Michael as the stand-in Jim Jones, like The Sacrament except in the dark and not nearly as well-directed as Ti West’s movie. It’s the same thing you’ve seen time and time again – people flail around in the black frames, occasional scenery popping in and out of the darkness, screams, a bit of blood, discovering bodies laying on the floor. A real mess. Sure, you say, “they’re all like that”. Well, no they aren’t, sorry to break it to you. Sadly, Apocalyptic took a concept that worked really well in something like V/H/S 2 for Gareth Huw Evans & Timo Tjahjanto in their short “Safe Haven”, and Triggs fumbled a chance to do different things. West’s movie worked because it was basically a contemporary look at a Jonestown-esque event in our society, nothing groundbreaking yet it was effective and unsettling. Whereas Apocalyptic aims to be different, poses as something different, but ultimately does a near exact replica of the most well-known aspects of Jim Jones and the whole massacre in Jonestown. (SPOILER AHEAD) The very end plays out like the last few moments of Jones’ life, and of course like West does with The Sacrament. So there is really nothing at all innovative about any part of this movie, which is a shame. Cults are always good for a bit of horror.
I wasn’t overly taken by anything in this one, aside from some of those juicy creepy creep shots like images sort of lost in darkness and a few that were covered in a fog, like a mist wrapped the frame. I’ll give Triggs 1 star, solely for those few fleeting moments, and I did like the opening. However, once the mystery started to slip away and the plot revealed itself, I was less an less taken, found myself not really caring about anyone in the film other than the poor young girls being obviously abused and raped by Michael. There just was no emotion. Even the main performance by David Macrea wasn’t anything to write home about. He tried, a valiant if only decent effort. It just was not enough to lift Apocalyptic out of tedium, a pit of boredom, and the whole thing is not even mediocre, it’s bad. Whereas a film like Red State, which I personally loved, had someone such as Michael Parks to really propel the movie into another stratosphere of excellence, Apocalyptic did not have any of that, from either of the lead characters. If maybe there was a great scare in the end, moments which were downright terrifying, or even a bit of wild gore or effects, I might have been able to give this more than 1 star.
But no such luck in life. This was a rough one to sit through – believe it or not, I watched it twice just to see if there was anything I’d missed in my first round of boredom. I don’t recommend it, only for completists who want to see all the found footage they can get their grubby mitts on. Almost not even worth the time and eyeball moisture.
The Sacrament. 2014. Directed & Written by Ti West.
Starring Joe Swanberg, AJ Bowen, Amy Seimetz, Kate Lyn Sheil, Gene Jones, and Kentucker Audley. Magnet Releasing. Rated R. 95 minutes. Horror/Thriller
Previously I discussed The Sacrament in my 15 Found Footage Films Worth Watching. Here, I’ll go much more in-depth on why I think this is a great film overall.
I only discovered Ti West once seeing his 2009 film The House of the Devil. I went back and secured a copy of his first feature film from 2005 called The Roost – a neat little movie with mutated killer bats and a few friends on a road trip headed to a wedding; I love every frame of this one. Included on the DVD I bought, luckily, there came his earlier short film from back in 2001, Prey. He later went on to do the fantastic modern ghost tale of The Innkeepers, and a couple of great segments in both V/H/S (the short called “Second Honeymoon” featuring Joe Swanberg – actually my favourite of the first film’s shorts), as well as the 2012 horror mega-anthology The ABCs of Death (a divisive short called “M is for Miscarriage”).
Then came The Sacrament – West’s retelling of the Jonestown Massacre )see: Jim Jones and the People’s Temple in Guyana). For those who don’t know, Jones was a supposed preacher who basically built up a cult of personality around himself using the faith, and money (and bodies/souls), of a congregation made up from lonely and lost, broken hearted people who wanted nothing more than to believe in something tailored to them. They all eventually fled to the Republic of Guyana on the coast of South America and, using the life savings of many members in the People’s Temple, built their own town – aptly named Jonestown. Jones convinced his congregation they were better off in Guyana. He also managed to convince many, not all however, the American government and certain agencies such as the CIA wanted to kill him, and in turn them – that people were, as the saying goes, “out to get them”, (as Father says in The Sacrament when a young member questions why their fate must be what it is: “(if not) they will come down here with their guns and bombs and wipe us out!”). Then one day, Jones finally went off the deep end, after having lived a double life for quite some time pretending to be the all-righteous preacher by day and then indulging his primal urges by night (including alcohol, drugs, and the homosexual practices he condemned – Jones claimed himself to be the “only true heterosexual male” and justified his sodomizing of other men in his church as his sole option in helping those men in realizing their own homosexuality). He brought everyone their little meeting area at Jonestown, a crew of people brought out big jugs of mixed up Kool Aid with cyanide, and everyone proceeded to drink up – some were force fed, et cetera. You get the picture.
This is essentially the plot of The Sacrament, however, West does not use this as a “based on a true story” tale. It never says this anywhere. I believe West used the Jim Jones story to translate things into a new modern era. This also explains the reasoning behind choosing VICE as a way to explore the Jones story through a different lens, as well as a neat way to help lend the film a found footage feel. People will argue it isn’t “true” found footage, but it is – using VICE, West is able to disguise this as one of their hands on trips to a foreign country, practicing what they call “immersionism”, and so under that he’s able to also incorporate little bits of editing and the like.
Which brings me to one of the things I really feel puts this movie over as a horrifying ordeal. Aside from all the imagery of terror throughout, especially in the final reel, the music really helps West’s film in regards to atmosphere and tone. The mood is immediately set when the VICE guys roll into the Eden Parish complex (the West-version of Jonestown) and soon the foreboding music begins. It’s really great. As things get more uncomfortable, and at times downright creepy, the score goes along: it gets dark and deep, slow, picking up its pace in parallel to that of the film itself. This is one of my favourite parts about the inclusion of VICE as part of the plot – West can account for the sense of editing inherent in the music by putting it off on VICE taking the footage back, editing later, as they do. This helps alleviate some of the pressures of the found footage sub-genre. West didn’t have to be too strict worrying about whether or not everything seemed perfectly explainable in as far as they had to perfectly fit the found footage “rules” in order for people to accept how things were being filmed (because we all know when it comes to horror and sub-genres specifically some fans are picky as all hell – to an unfair fault both to the filmmakers, as well as their own enjoyment of movies..). All that said, the music is just really wonderful. I couldn’t care less if it fit or not with the found footage aspect because it just worked so well for the film I really cannot complain one bit.
For those who don’t particularly care for / follow Ti West, he often works in conjunction with a bunch of other filmmakers and actors associated with the “mumblegore” film movement (a particularly silly moniker I think doesn’t do their talent justice). These people include fellow directors Adam Wingard and Joe Swanberg (who regularly acts as well), actors A.J Bowen and Amy Seimetz, and multi-talent Kentucker Audley (everyone aside from Audley was involved with Wingard’s 2001 directorial effort You’re Next which was only just released last year; West acted in that one and got murdered fairly quickly).
In this movie, we get everybody mentioned aside from Wingard. Bowen and Swanberg play the VICE guys – each of them are very believable and because of their previous relationship were clearly able to appear natural together on camera + playing faux-real people in the documentary-styled film. I particularly love Bowen, and here he is very good. I thought he played the character of Sam well from start to finish – both as the confident VICE reporter and then later as the scared man trying to help himself while also worrying about helping others. Bowen worked well as Sam in those later bits because West played with the fact this man was an expecting father. While he clearly wanted to get out of there, as anyone would especially if they have no real personal attachment to the place, Bowen showed the struggle of a man who couldn’t fly back home to his pregnant wife, his unborn child, knowing he didn’t do anything and everything he could to help the men, women, and children at Eden Parish. There was some great stuff in there. Bowen helped get that out and make it part of why The Sacrament was effective.
Amy Seimetz, who is always fantastic and great at playing complex female characters, gives a great performance as the sister to Audley’s character; she is one of the lost flock who follow Father down to Eden Parish. In fact, the scene between Audley and Seimetz (you’ll know which one) later in the film is not only heartbreaking, it is a master class in acting. Each of them were in fine form, most certainly Audley, but it was definitely one of the most heartwrenching scenes of any horror film in 2014; without a doubt. I could feel the pain dripping out the frame. Classic scene.
I know some people wonder why Ti West chose a story such as that of Jones to use as a template for this story in The Sacrament. But again, I say it – nowhere does West claim that his film is whatsoever based on a true story. He knows we’re smart enough to understand where it comes from – even those younger moviegoers who may not be all that familiar with Jones will probably, through the internet, come to figure out this has some basis in reality.
Regardless, West crafts something better than just a Lifetime Biography on the Jonestown Massacre because he doesn’t hold it to the standards of the actual story. West could write a more diverse character in Father by not holding him strictly to the mould of Jim Jones. If he had based this completely on Jones, he would have had to stick with the period of time in which it happened – right there, not only does this eliminate any elaboration on the character types within the story, it also completely puts the kibosh on the VICE angle, and then all the threads start slowly wearing away. I think it was smart of West to choose this story, as it’s socially relevant in any time let alone the strange times we live in today, and by manipulating it and not sticking totally to a true story he is able to leave certain aspects unlimited.
For instance, the relationship between the brother and sister (Audley and Seimetz) could have been done through an unchanged version of the Jonestown story, however, it also risks not doing justice to actual survivors.
While people can argue it’s just as insensitive (or whatever else they want to say) that West would make a fictional story out of a tragedy which really happened, he really makes a great film and tells a rich story. By not making this the Jim Jones story, he also sheds some responsibilities – not only to the sub-genre of found footage film, but also to the real people who experienced Jonestown firsthand.
Bad taste? I don’t think so. Not by my watch. This is a great and powerful horror film for modern audiences. It satisfied me to no end. Having seen almost ever single piece of Ti West’s work as a director, I can honestly say his work gets better and better. I’m looking forward to seeing In a Valley of Violence. He’s a guy to keep your eye on.