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  • Jacob Knight

Slow West: The Creeping Outsider Terror of Ti West

If you apply a particular brand of Galaxy Brained logic to Ti West's cinematic career, it makes sense that he hails from Wilmington, Delaware. Like George A. Romero or Tobe Hooper, he's an auteur who emerged from the least likely of locales. After all, nobody thought an industrial workman from Pittsburgh or a doped out hippie from Texas would become the renegade outsiders who re-defined genre cinema for the foreseeable future, yet that didn't stop either from respectively crafting Night of the Living Dead (1968) and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). Cue Wayne Campbell stepping into the shot and flatly intoning "Hi, I'm in Delaware." Nevertheless, that's where we're currently at: hailing a goofball kid from a state the size of a postage stamp for being possibly the most exciting voice in American scare cinema for the past two decades.

But let's back up a bit. The year: 1999. The place: New York City. West is a snot nosed punk enrolled in the School of Visual Arts and making friends with a professor named Kelly Reichardt (whose own directorial output you'll now find in the Criterion section of your physical media collection). Half a decade prior, Reichardt made a movie called River of Grass (1994), which was partially produced, edited by, and co-starred fellow NYC maverick Larry Fessenden. Along with appearing in Reichardt's Grand Jury Prize nominated Sundance selection, Larry had made a name for himself during the '90s, shooting grubby, personal low budget horror films such as No Telling (1991, a/k/a The Frankenstein Complex) and Habit (1995). Naturally, West was smitten with the idea of Reichardt calling in her colleague to lecture her students about the trials and tribulations of balling in the film world on a shoestring budget.

According to West, that lecture, for one reason or another, never actually occurred. Sadly, the stars don't always align the way you want them to. Still, that didn't stop the tenacious kid from bugging Reichardt for Fessenden's number and his teacher eventually caved, setting up a coffee date for the two, which led to an internship; a job West jokes mostly consisted of cleaning Larry's apartment. Ti didn't mind, though, because he had a proven bit of human rubber that he could now bounce his own ideas off of. Short films were shared, and he and Larry became close friends. At the end of his time in college, West's newfound mentor inquired what the burgeoning auteur wanted to do with his life. Instead of hitting LA and grinding it out with the rest of his fellow graduates, Ti took a $50K investment in his future from Fessenden and crafted his first feature, betting on his own idiosyncratic brand rather than heading West and waiting with crossed fingers to be discovered.

Allegedly written over a weekend after West (in true Clarence Worley fashion) bullshitted Fessenden by telling him he had a script all ready to shoot following a quick polish, The Roost (2005) is a scrappy ode to the midnight movies that haunted late night TV and local video stores during the majority of the '80s and '90s. Shot on super 16mm in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania and Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, and featuring a cast of mostly untested/unrecognizable faces - though co-star Wil Horneff was a child actor who'd appeared opposite Karen Allen in the sci-fi dreck pseudo-slasher Ghost in the Machine (1993) - there's a backyard energy to the movie that's infectious. The Roost is clearly the product of a bunch of kids just trying to break into the business by any means necessary, and the ever-evolving narrative, following a group of friends whose car breaks down on the way to a wedding in a place Hunter S. Thompson would surely agree is "bat country", has a near exquisite corpse style of construction. One second, we're being chased by a horde of bloodsucking rodents. The next: an elderly couple is attempting to eat our fresh flesh.

If one element is evident even within West's most nascent form as a writer/director, it's a pure, unadulterated love for the craft of movie-making. Book-ended by Ghoulardi-esque horror host segues (played by the Tooth Fairy himself, Tom Noonan, looking like Lurch from The Addams Family on Quaaludes), and peppered with rubbery homemade gore SFX (courtesy of longtime collaborator Glenn McQuaid's squad of lo-fi maniacs), you're never meant to forget that The Roost is a Russian nesting doll of homage. By the time Noonan's shooing us away into a full-blown POV shot at it's conclusion because "The Master" unexpectedly arrived home before his program ended, the level of ingenuity on display would inadvertently predict both the incoming faux grindhouse and found footage crazes that'd overtake fright filmmaking for the next few years. Does it all work? No, but it's charming as all hell.

Premiering in the "Round Midnight" block of the 2005 SXSW Film Festival before (very briefly) hitting big city theaters, it also makes sense that West's debut feature would mostly find an audience in living rooms, courtesy of Showtime and Paramount's home video release. That said, it was a dream come true for Ti to even have a title under his belt, and thus he began bugging Fessenden again to make another movie under Larry's Corman-esque Glass Eye Pix/Scare Flix banners. The result is undoubtedly West's most experimental picture: the backwoods horror story of dueling snipers, Trigger Man (2007).

Bringing it back to his OG creative rabbi, Trigger Man recalls Kelly Reichardt's Old Joy (2006) as much as it does survival terror staples like Deliverance (1972) or even deep cut shockers like the Canuxploitation classic, Rituals ('77, a/k/a The Creeper). Manning a handheld camera himself in the overwhelming greenery of his Delaware stomping grounds, West's pixelated, nigh consumer grade DV images construct a suffocating sense of placid dread, as his three anonymous leads (Reggie Cunningham, Ray Sullivan, and Sean Reid) wander through the woods, wanking around, stressing about significant others, and generally shooting at everything but the actual animals they've ostensibly set out to kill.

Through these naturalistic interactions, we get a sense of the bond the boys share, as West lets us fill in their backstory via peripheral details. Olive green garb and the tattoos on Reggie's arms, not to mention the way he fires his weapon, clue us in to time served in the military. Meanwhile, Ray and Sean seem to keep their distance from their stressball buddy, as every time his phone rings he seems to be pushed closer to the edge of sanity. But before we can get to the bottom of solving Reggie's anxieties, a shot rings out and tears one of the men's heads in two right as he's relieving himself, shattering any sense of peace that could be found amongst nature.

Just like the Halloween travelers in The Roost, an otherwise mundane sojourn is disrupted without warning. It's a classic exploitation set up that's distinguished not because of the story it's telling, but instead how West chooses to tell it. The long, loose takes transform Trigger Man into a sort of mumblegore precursor to Clint Eastwood's American Sniper (2014), wherein two killers stare down the scopes of their rifles at one another, hoping to get a clear headshot and a confirmed kill, the pink mist of brain matter staining the green inferno that surrounds them. It isn't until Fessenden shows up as a deranged henchman in the film's final minutes that we're reminded we're still bearing witness to a Glass Eye joint. This is horror cinema at it's most avant-garde, playfully lulling you into submission before the crack of gunfire jolts you back to horrific reality.

Before West would deliver his crowning achievement (up to that point), he'd hit a minor career speed bump in the form of Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever (2009). A studio gig suggested by friend (not to mention Cabin Fever [2002] and Hostel [2005] creator), Eli Roth, West reluctantly took the gig and got to completely toss out a draft by Hatchet (2006) fan favorite, Adam Green, rewriting the movie from scratch and shooting it in 2007 with a cast and crew he, for the most part, handpicked. Sounds like a dream gig, right? Wrong. Spring Fever was, more or less, taken away from West after Lionsgate decided they wanted to punch up the picture's John Waters influenced comedy, causing Ti to step aside and let the studio finish their edit without a director to guide them. While producer Lauren Moews swears that the finished product is still "90% percent" West's cut, Ti lobbied to have his name replaced with the dreaded Alan Smithee moniker, removing any authorial stamp from Cabin Fever 2. He was denied this request by the DGA, due to his lack of membership.

On one hand, this was a wildly unfortunate situation for any young artist to encounter. On the other, it's tough not to wonder if we wouldn't have gotten a movie as aesthetically hungry as The House of the Devil (2009) as a result. House is a horror film almost entirely built around the notion of visual texture. Again, the story is another flimsy construct we've seen more than a few times before: a money-strapped babysitter (the downright effervescent Jocelin Donahue) takes a shady gig from a mysterious benefactor (Tom Noonan, sporting a cane that'd make Vincent Price green with envy) that ends up making her the sacrificial lamb to a cult of devil worshipers straight out of an '80s Satanic Panic fever dream. No pun intended, but the execution of this one horrific night in a young woman's life invents an aura of New England dronecore dread that grips the viewer by the throat right up until the brief, shocking epilogue in an antiseptic hospital room.

A slavish work of period design, The House of the Devil is perhaps the go-to example from the aughts grindhouse revival to try and illustrate the difference between "homage" and "recreation". West isn't just paying tribute to the lo-fi movies of the '80s, he's actually making his own entry that, should a viewer start watching the film uninformed of it's production date, could actually pass for a dusty VHS relic you just happened to pull out of a weathered cardboard box at the local flea market. Aided in no small part by regular production designer Jade Healy, everything from the babysitter's fuzzy, Fixx-blaring Walkman headphones to the oversized Coke cups holding said bubbly, brown sugar water in a local pizza joint, we're transported to another place and another time. West is using the theory of celluloid being a time capsule to actually invent a time machine, and it's absolutely mesmerizing.

What do you do if you think the hotel you're staying in is, in fact, more haunted than the actual movie you're making while staying in it? Well, you make another movie, of course. The Innkeepers (2011) is Ti West's Clerks (1994), only instead of two jag offs discussing the minutiae of the Death Star's hostile working environment, we're presented with a pair of sweet desk jockeys (Pat Healy and Sara Paxton - who'd re-team in E.L. Katz's terrific working class exploitation flick, Cheap Thrills [2013]) just trying to get through their final weekend of booking rooms at the historic Yankee Peddler Inn. Make no mistake, The Innkeepers is more of a workplace comedy than it is a horror film. The fact that these slackers are looking for the establishment's rumored ghosts is almost an afterthought: a diverting hobby they took up while delivering towels at this minimum wage gig.

As was alluded to above, The Innkeepers was conceived during production on The House of the Devil, as West and his cast and crew stayed at the actual Yankee Peddler and Ti became fascinated by the juxtaposition of the mostly twenty-something staff set against this boardinghouse built in the late 1800s. The fact that he and producer Peter Phok actually convinced The Peddler to let the crew return and shoot the very same work of supernatural fiction the inn inspired is sort of mind-blowing with hindsight. Cinematographer Eliot Rockett captures all of the gaudily renovated hallways and drafty rooms with the same hypnotic long takes he applied to House of the Devil, transporting us into this cheap stay and making us wonder if the indentation on the sheets next to us was left by our partner, the turn-down service...or something unseen that doesn't want us staying here at all.

Perhaps what's most impressive about The Innkeepers is how it highlights another tool in West's seemingly bottomless box: his ability to work well with actors. It's no coincidence that Ti not only counts some of the stalwarts from the infamous aughts "mumblecore" movement - including Joe Swanberg, Greta Gerwig, and Lena Dunham - as both close confidants and collaborators, he's actually appeared as a performer in their pictures as well (somewhat unconvincingly peering out a window in Adam Wingard's You're Next [2011] and bafflingly bedding Olivia Wilde in Swanberg's Drinking Buddies [2013]). Together, the group formed a sort of unofficial acting troupe that was inescapable if you attended film festivals during the 2010s, as they almost always had a naturalistic take on some genre trope showing up in an auditorium at SXSW and/or Fantastic Fest.

Like The House of the Devil, The Sacrament (2014) opens with an elaborate title card, explaining a new craze in modern journalism:"immersionism". Merely a millennial spin on embedded reporting, West makes the protagonists of this harrowing Vice mockumentary a pair of self-righteous hipster truth seekers (A.J. Bowen and Joe Swanberg), who accompany a fashion photographer (Kentucker Audley) on a quest to find his missing, drug addict sister (Amy Seimetz) after she's allegedly found peace at a secluded South American sanctuary led by a Jim Jonesian leader known simply as Father (Gene Jones). But beyond giving us all the backstory we need to understand the modus operandi of these obviously doomed reporters, West seems to have finally found a one word label for his own brand of genre world building via this grim introductory skimming of Urban Dictionary.

Unlike the rest of West's flicks, there's nothing really pleasant about The Sacrament. For all of their grue and old school shock tactics, Ti's pictures would actually play pretty well at your next Halloween Party, where you and your buddies gather around the TV with popcorn, candy, and your favorite beverage/inhalant of choice, waiting to be wowed by a triple feature of spook-a-blast delights. No, The Sacrament is grim. Zero fun to be had. Almost like the exploitation equivalent of Titanic (1997), only without any of the Jack and Rose young love shenanigans - a cold descent into the murky depths of Hell where poisoned Kool Aid and the bullets of a mercenary's machine gun are our only rewards for making it to the end. Produced by Eli Roth, The Sacrament spins as the better-natured B-Side to the provocative horror historian's "fuck your SJW bullshit" Cannibal Holocaust (1980) riff, The Green Inferno (2014). Not once do you believe anyone is going to make it out alive, causing the audience to count the minutes until inevitable cult apocalypse is unleashed.

Arriving at the tail end of the found footage phenomenon (we'd be on our fifth Paranormal Activity [2007] movie by the time it hit theaters), The Sacrament sees West applying his now trademarked slow burn to this reinvigorated formal realm, mostly to solid success (unlike his V/H/S [2012] anthology entry, "Second Honeymoon", which is, frankly, a laborious chore to sit through). Sure, he falls into the usual pitfalls that have plagued this mode of filmmaking since Ruggero Deodato shoved that pole through an Amazonian woman's pussy (namely: when the guns come out, it's hard to believe the cameras wouldn't disappear), but his commitment to adapting such a rigorous style to a methodology not really known for having any is perhaps one of West's finest innovations in a career full of inventive image-making.

The opening of Brian De Palma's Blow Out (1981) throws us smack dab in the middle of a faux slasher. Using a typically dynamic Steadicam shot, we circle a sorority house in gauzy POV, gazing in at multiple nubile bodies as they writhe, argue, dance and fuck. It's a technically dazzling parody of the wave of body count schlock that had risen in the wake of Friday the 13th (1980); a virtuoso showcase for one of America's wildest auteurs to poke his junky colleagues in the ribs while simultaneously celebrating a disreputable subgenre. In short, it's an utterly breathtaking love letter to exploitation that isn't afraid to take the pot with a Royal Flush of bratty showmanship.

X (2022) is the opening of Blow Out, stretched to feature length and somehow ten times hornier than De Palma's best picture. It's that good. Like John Travolta's dogged soundman, who just happens to capture a political assassination while out doing field recordings of ambient background noise, the porno dreamers trekking to a remote farm on the outskirts of Houston hoping to hit it big with white, sticky gold are clinging to a celluloid art form as their only hope to make an impact on this world. Yet, in a cynical fashion similar to BDP's masterpiece, they're destroyed by another artist who discovered long ago that the medium of expression she loved couldn't save her life. In the end, we're all gonna die, limp-dicked and possibly screaming, as West mixes a landslide of formal experimentation with a literalization of Texas Chain Saw's grim mission statement that Sally Hardesty and her friends' demises were "all the more tragic in that they were young".

Now, West has been pondering the relationship between porn and horror for some time. In a 2009 chat with Lena Dunham for Interview magazine (while promoting House of the Devil), Ti said:

"Horror is really unfortunate now. It’s like porn. What seems to have happened is that everyone decided the horrific stuff is what makes these types of films successful so there is no time spent on the “real life” aspect anymore. It becomes just one kill or cum-shot after another. Mainstream horror is only about titillation. That, to me, is the same as pornography."

Sort of ironic, given that his widest release to date (courtesy of elevated horror magnates A24) revolves around a porn crew, yet West's opinion isn't exactly coming from left field here. In a multiplex environment led by the likes of James Wan (whose films this writer likes well enough, regardless of their formulaic nature), the jump scare is what gets audiences hard. But West takes his comparison a step further beyond his previous musings and real life analogues of smut peddlers-cum-fright fiends (just look to the DIY career of Bill Lustig for possibly the best example). With X, porn is again about outsiders arriving to try and shake up an industry that would otherwise keep the door locked on them, just like Hollywood could've possibly kept a kid from Delaware at bay had Larry Fessenden not intervened with fifty thousand dollars worth of belief in a tenacious dude with a personal vision for the future of genre films.

With his opening shot - widening in Fordian fashion from the boxy 16mm frame of porn to a widescreen tableau of massacre after the fact - Ti West announces his intentions with X: this is a movie about the magic of making movies. The fact that he picked an original entry into the beyond tired slasher subgenre as his Trojan Horse to once again marvel at the sheer technical skill it takes to make an interesting horror film feels like a subversive act unto itself. That he got A24 to finance such an endeavor following a six-year absence from features (his spaghetti Western banger In a Valley of Violence [2017] being his last), and in the age where producer driven MCU pre-viz whizz bang is the mainstream smut of it's day is a bona fide miracle. X is a grand statement that nothing is more titillating than having an artist transport you to their own little island of dreams, no matter how damned that isle might actually be. With a porno holocaust, a kid from Delaware might've just become the greatest American horror filmmaker of his time, all because he actually gives a shit about the actual craft of movies. Thank God for goddamn fucked up horror pictures.

Jacob Knight is the co-founder/host/editor of Secret Handshake.

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