Three women. One was recently in a mental hospital; the other two students left stranded at their boarding school. Their lives come together violently.
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 Survivalist. 2015. Directed & Written by Stephen Fingleton.
Starring Martin McCann, Mia Goth, Andrew Simpson, Olwen Fouere, Douglas Russell, Kieri Kennedy, Ryan McParland, Michael Og Lane, Claran Flynn, Hussina Raja, Logan Kerr, Aran Downey, Sean Doupe, and Matthew Henry. The Fyzz Facility Film One.
Rated 18A. 104 minutes.
I’d been excited for a while after hearing of The Survivalist, as I kept on hearing there was something different about it than other films like it. You will no doubt think of many different science fiction romps where the end of the world is upon us, perhaps everything from The Road to Mad Max and more. However, there is a quiet elegance, a beauty about writer-director Stephen Fingleton’s debut feature film which you won’t always find in other similarly themed movies; this is certainly more close to the Cormac McCarthy adaptation than the early Mel Gibson star vehicle.
What we get here is a world of lush visuals, the earth still vibrant and beautiful, as starvation is rampant and has turned humanity in on itself. Whereas something like The Road explored a total end of the world style situation, where humans were indeed beginning to fold on another, The Survivalist takes on a small story within a bigger world yet it manages to tackle some other issues. Right from the beginning 15 minutes you’ll understand this is a unique and vastly different science fiction thriller than you’re used to. But that doesn’t mean anything bad. Completely the opposite – the unusual nature of this movie will draw you into its complex, and at times both dark and gorgeous world. Featuring a breakout performance from Martin McCann, the plot of The Survivalist comes alive, it grows on you and in you, presenting a incomparable vision of a world future that’s incredibly terrifying at times.
The Survivalist (Martin McCann) feeds off the land, or what he can, anyways. Earth as it is now, in the future, has found itself ravaged by starvation. People grow crops where and when they can. Not everyone is able to do everything they want, as humanity crumbles further and further. Violence is a new way of life for many. Money is no longer of any use, neither are bits of gold, watches, anything that would’ve been used as currency in the old days. Living on his own, The Survivalist manages to get through the day, each day, one after another.
Except one day his daily routine is interrupted. Two women come to the door – Kathryn (Olwen Fouere) and her daughter Milja (Mia Goth). They need and want food. They offer up gold and trinkets, but The Survivalist wants none of those things. Nothing is of much use to him anymore. Only Kathryn offers him something far more intriguing, something he has not had for far to long: sex with a woman, Milja to be exact. After they spend a night together, The Survivalist’s life changes, becoming drastically different than it was before. And not for the better, as an arrangement he strikes with the two women devolves into something worse. Suddenly, his whole world and his life are threatened, more than ever.
The central performance of Martin McCann stuck with me almost from the first frame. He’s got a naturally piercing pair of eyes, though, his acting gives them fire. Even just by himself there is a whole world behind his eyes, and you can watch him go through a range of emotions simply by looking into them. Without words, in many of the scenes, McCann can bring us into the character’s head so well. Combined with the sweeping and emotive cinematography of Damien Elliott, the performance McCann gives is powerful, capturing him in such wonderfully framed shots that it’s hard not to want to keep staring at them long after they’re gone.
Likewise, both Mia Goth and Olwen Fouere are excellent. Fouere, the older of the two, sort of gives Goth the lead-in; both cold, calculating women, but each of them quiet and inconspicuous. They’re like mirrors of one another, or perhaps Goth’s Milja is a shadow of Fouere’s Kathryn. Either way, they both express similar subtle power as McCann, which in turn compliments his performance in the right kind of sense. Three of them together can make an ordinary scene into something much more, and all without much dialogue.
That brings me to another thing I love: the screenplay. Fingleton doesn’t make a typical post-apocalyptic film, which he easily could have done. Yes, as I said, there are parts of The Survivalist that will seem familiar. But it’s in the way Fingleton lets his plot and story play out, twisting, turning quickly at times (though paced at a steady rhythm). That’s why it all works. Even more than that, the exposition is cut to a minimum here, the bare minimum. If there’s even any at all, in terms of the overall story of what’s happening. When it comes to The Survivalist himself there is a brief portion of expository dialogue where he reveals a small piece of his own story, although it isn’t much. I dig that because we don’t have to know a ton about him; several of his actions speak louder than words.
The entire aesthetic of the film, visuals and sound design included, are so perfectly fitting, full-stop. There is certainly a slow burn feel to the movie, interrupted now and then by situations which give the plot energy, but no matter what is happening at any given time there’s a continually fluid darkness to every frame. From one minute to the next, the cinematography captures everything with a somber beauty, as even the colourful green pastures and clear sunny skies take on a heavy foreboding quality. I always love when the visuals in a film can maintain that gritty feel despite a night or day setting. Because make no mistake, The Survivalist is 150% grim. There are bright and bouncy locations, as the little cabin and the tiny field of crops sitting among healthy green trees all look pretty. But with everything happening within the story there is a black cloud looming constantly, which comes across brilliantly in the cinematography. Coupled with that, the sound design – without a score – takes us deep into the world of the film, from wind blowing between the cracks of the cabin and regular everyday noises like the scraping of plates, the rattle of a mug, to the rush of the river and the natural sounds of the outdoors. Some people might not like that, but I suspect they might be not of the type who enjoy this sort of film in general. Yet if you’re willing to give it a chance the movie’s look and feel, its atmosphere, will get into you with its hooks.
A quality 5-star film, an amazing debut feature out of Stephen Fingleton. We’re often bombarded with a lot of low budget science fiction films that aim too high before sinking too low with acting and visuals which never quite seem to cut it. In opposition to all those other less movies trying to hard and delivering nothing, The Survivalist goes for less while bringing so much more to the table. With a sparse yet impressively powerful style, Fingleton’s film is full of surprises. It is intense at its core, full of humanity, and above all else the performances root this story in a firm place, as the actors each use their talents to bring a tragic world to life before our eyes. I do hope Fingleton will bring us more to enjoy in the future – his vision of what the future looks like is scary, depicting a depleted human nature – so if that happens, I want more films like this, and quick.
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!