Years Active: 2001-present
Alma Mater: School of Visual Arts
Associated Movements: Horror Independents, Mumblecore
Influences: Stanley Kubrick, Roman Polanski, William Friedkin
As an avid read of independent filmmaking blogs and news sites, I was first exposed to indie horror director Ti West around 2011, when his feature THE INKEEPERS was making the rounds at film festivals. He was praised for his old-fashioned aesthetic, and for making scary movies that were actually artful and high quality. I became a firm believer in West after watching THE INKEEPERS and finding it to be one of the most energizing horror films I’d seen in years. That impression was further reinforced by watching his 2009 feature THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL and finding it to also be a brilliantly crafted film. As a filmmaker with the grand majority of his career still ahead of him, West may seem an odd choice for a retrospective essay series such as this one. He really only has a few high-profile features to his name, and even then he hasn’t caused a significantly large ripple in the film community yet. However, with each film he makes, his profile grows a little more, marking him as a director to watch. His commitment to bringing the genre back from the uninspired dregs of such studio horror franchises as the SAW series or PARANORMAL ACTIVITY is both refreshing and promising. As his career grows, he’ll almost certainly become our preeminent director of scary content, redefining horror for a whole new generation.
Born in Delaware in 1980, West is one of the few working directors that is close to me in age, so thusly, he belongs to my generation of filmmakers: old enough to remember the days of VCRs and video cassettes, but young enough that we’ve always had access to cheap digital video cameras. As such, a lot of us have been making films quite economically from a very early age. We were also the first generation of filmmakers to directly benefit from online video and the rise of Youtube, which allowed us to distribute our films directly to fans without the need for conventional theatrical releases or film festivals. West’s formative years were no doubt spent watching and re-watching videocassettes of horror classics until the tapes wore out. The fuzzy, lo-fi aesthetic of the format played a huge role in influencing his own.
He studied filmmaking at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, where he found himself under the tutelage of noted indie director Kelly Reichardt (WENDY AND LUCY (2008), MEEK’S CUTOFF (2010)). From her, he learned the value of minimalism, resourcefulness, and conviction of vision. It was his relationship with Reichardt that led to his internship at Glass Eye Pix, run by director/producer/actor Larry Fessenden. Fessenden had starred in Reichardt’s debut feature RIVER OF GRASS (1994) and had since carved out a niche for himself as a producer of grindhouse genre exploitation films in the vein of Roger Corman. Fessenden took an active interest in his talented young intern, and agreed to executive produce his first few features, bringing West some instant indie cred.
While he was at SVA in 2001, West completed three short works titled PREY, INFESTED, and THE WICKED. PREY appears to be the only of these shorts that is publicly available, so I only have that go off on in exploring West’s first forays behind the camera. PREY concerns two young men who are chased through snowy woods by a bloodthirsty creature. It’s a pretty standard horror story, with the bulk of the action focusing on the protagonists evading the unspecified monster. What it lacks in story, PREY makes up for in execution— West’s confidence behind the camera is already apparent.
PREY was shot on 16mm film, as were his other two student shorts, so the film is naturally constrained to a square 4:3 frame. The cinematography by West himself is unadorned, with the young director hand-operating his camera and employing zooms for dramatic effect. He takes a lot of visual cues from THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999), like the woodsy setting and handheld camera shakiness but he also employs his own visual language with the monster, giving its POV an eerie, supernatural feel with a monochrome negative filter. We only see the Monster in extreme close-ups, its snapping jaws most resembling a wolf. Even then, West knew that the key to effective horror is that our imaginations can conjure up something far scarier than what he could realize on-screen. PREY also shows West’s affinity for immersive sound design, an aspect on which most horror films live or die. Despite the lo-fi nature of the cinematography, PREY comes off as pretty polished thanks to a high quality sound mix.
In his student films, we can already see West’s defining characteristics emerging. His influences and inspirations are incorporated into his work in the form of old school techniques and suspense. Make no mistake, PREY is very much a student film, much like the subpar shorts I saw in my own days as a film student at Emerson College, but it also has a distinct confidence behind it. Without being able to see THE WICKED or INFESTED, it’s still clear that West knows what he’s doing, and that he already possesses the skills that will make his feature work stand out from the pack.
PREY is currently available as a bonus feature on the standard definition DVD of his feature, THE ROOST (2005).