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The Fourth Wall

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A Watchful Eye On… Ti West

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August 24th, 2010 at 5:15 pm

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Barely on the edge of thirty, filmmaker Ti West has four feature films – with more on the way – and a respectable cult following to his name. Many a young director’s dream come true. Critics have mused, and interviews with West have confirmed, that his approach to projects draws heavily on the influence of Roger Corman. In West’s own words, he and his production group, Glass Eye Pix, aim to make “B movies with A ideas,” a phrase coined by Glass Eye’s producer Larry Fessenden.

The House Of The Devil has many shadows to wander. Bring a knife.

West’s films, especially creature feature The Roost and his latest chiller The House Of The Devil, bring another influence to mind. There is an element of Tobe Hooper’s best work – The Funhouse, Eaten Alive, and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre – in West’s taut buildups, bizarre scenarios, and brutal payoffs. His debut feature, The Roost (2005) boasts murderous farmers and killer bats aplenty. This seems to have Tobe Hooper throwback written all over it.

In adding more notches to his director’s belt, West demonstrates a keen sense of atmosphere and suspense. He is not afraid to take his time in building the story to a boil. Sometimes it may go on a little too long, as in his 2007 survival thriller Trigger Man, before things actually start happening. However, the contemplative pace of this film allows the actors do a little bit acting, which isn’t so bad. And when things happen, boy do they happen.

Consider also Brad Anderson, director of The Machinist and Session 9 among others. Here is a director with an eye for style and plenty of patience for suspense. However, his earlier films rarely had enough story or character development to stand up under the weight of their own plot twists. The Machinist was less noteworthy for its substance than for the spectacle of Christian Bale starving himself to dangerous levels. However, Session 9 balances out its just-okay script and serviceable acting with some truly fantastic atmosphere. It is perhaps one of the first true cult classics of this century. On the strength of this film alone Anderson gathered a modest but faithful following, but had yet to knock the socks off a wide world audience. At this point Anderson raised the stakes and made Transsiberian, a gripping suspense thriller set on a train rushing through the remote Russian wilderness. It is a real white-knuckler in the tradition of Afred Hitchcock and his many disciples.

West seems to have made his own Transsiberian as well. He strikes a balance between superb atmosphere and dread-sustaining pace in his latest feature, The House Of The Devil (2009), which even in limited release turned a lot of heads. Based on the popular 1980s panic over Satanic ritual cults, this film is not merely styled but actually set in these same 1980s, making it not only an homage but a period piece. And indeed the little touches of setting, film stock, and especially music and title design, effectively transport a modern horror film into a bygone era.

Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) is a college student whose life is not so bad, except that she’s woefully short on cash and needs some quickly. Thus she accepts a babysitting job from a bizarre local couple (cult movie veterans Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov!) who seem hell-bent on catching the lunar eclipse. The proposition does not seem totally on the level, but it pays well and certainly couldn’t be dangerous… right?

Wrong.

No more details, because there’s not much else to tell in terms of plot without giving away surprises. Much of the film follows Samantha as she explores the house, gathering clues that point to the chilling truth about her employers and what they’ve really hired her for.

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If you want atmosphere, and plenty of uncomfortable silence, try this one out. It is enough to prompt major anticipation of West’s upcoming work, including his newly announced The Innkeepers.

For those interested in reading more about West and his work, there are a number of interviews with the director floating around out there. Try his chat with the Onion AV Club or with Patrick McDonald of Hollywood Chicago.

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