Notable Festivals: South by Southwest
These days, it’s extremely rare that an internship will lead to a full-time job. It’s rarer still, as an aspiring filmmaker, for an internship to lead directly to your first professional directing effort. However, that’s what happened with director Ti West, who interned under producer/actor Larry Fessenden’s Glass Eye Pix. Fessenden was impressed by West’s student films, so when West pitched him a feature idea about a pack of killer bats called THE ROOST, Fessenden was quick to come onboard as executive producer. Released in 2005 with intentions as a modest, low-budget throwback to cheesy horror films from the 1980’s, THE ROOST exceeded all expectations. West’s confident direction propelled it to a warm reception at various film festivals, effectively launching his career as a feature filmmaker worth watching.
THE ROOST follows four friends driving through dark woods en route to a Halloween wedding, when suddenly a renegade bat surprises them and causes the car to swerve into a ditch. Unable to free the car, the friends set off into the night to search for help. They come across a dilapidated barn and take shelter from the elements, but it’s not long until they discover that they’ve wandered directly into the bats’ roost, and their bite has the power to turn the bitten into bloodthirsty zombies.
One of the film’s peculiar quirks is the use of a framing device that resembles those late-night horror movie presentations introduced by a ghoulish host. West’s fictional show, which he calls Frightmare Theatre, places the macabre host inside of a chintzy, gothic castle and takes time out of THE ROOST’s narrative so that he can crack blackly humorous jokes. This bookending conceit boasts the film’s one recognizable face, in the form of Tom Noonan (famous for his portrayal of The Tooth Fairy in Michael Mann’s classic MANHUNTER (1986). Noonan is pitch perfect as the droll, Vincent Price-esque Master of Ceremonies, his naturally-gangly physicality adding to the cheesy spookiness on display. Securing the services of Noonan was THE ROOST’s ultimate coup, as his name brought a great deal of legitimacy to West’s efforts.
The cast inside of THE ROOST’s main narrative doesn’t fare as well, unfortunately. West casts a quartet of unknowns (Karl Jacob, Vanessa Horneff, Sean Reid, and Will Horneff) that are most likely friends of his from film school or from local auditions. The characters are standard horror archetypes: the bookish nerd, the sassy girl, the stubborn stoner, and the virtuous alpha male. Not a lot is required of the actors other than to scream and run on cue, which to be fair, they all do effectively. Otherwise, the performances are wooden and uninspired. There’s a reason why none of them broke out along with West in the wake of the film’s success. On the brighter side, Fessenden himself appears towards the end in a cameo as a tow-truck driver attacked by the flock of bats.
Of the filmmakers in my generation, West is unique in that he mostly shoots on film. Since he’s also shot a feature on video, I don’t think he necessarily prefers film to video, but I do think his old-fashioned aesthetic demands film because video can’t replicate it (at least it couldn’t when THE ROOST was made). West is a capable cinematographer in his own right, but he’s probably like me in that his shooting on actual film tests the limits of his skills when he’s also directing. The mechanics and mathematic calculations inherent in film is best left to a dedicated cinematographer, so West entrusts the Super 16mm photography to DP Eric Robbins. The aesthetic of THE ROOST is relatively unadorned, with the majority of camerawork being handheld. Robbins’ lighting setup is low-key, with lurid colors similar to the carnival-esque aesthetic of Rob Zombie’sHOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES (2003). It embraces the lo-fi natures of 16mm film, creating a similar look to the heyday of VHS horror. The color red is used specifically for effect, popping out of the darkness and flashed in gory freeze frames. The Frighthouse Theatre segment gets its own particular look, with black and white photography filtered to resemble an old TV broadcast. Production Designer David Bell populates the set with loads of cheesy gothic objects and dressing, completing West’s tongue-in-macabre-cheek vision.
West also incorporates storytelling elements whose influence comes from unexpected places, like Michael Haneke’s FUNNY GAMES (1997). Three quarters of the way through the film, the story abruptly ends with the surviving characters giving up and accepting their fate. Noonan’s unhappy host returns, expressing his disapproval of the ending, so he actually rewindsthe film and plays it back to show the alternate, definitive ending. Haneke did the same thing in his film, toying with his audience by presenting false hope only to snatch defeat from the jaws of triumph.
Composer Jeff Grace also received a modest breakout with THE ROOST, having previously assisted Howard Shore in his work on THE LORD OF THE RINGS TRILOGY for Peter Jackson and GANGS OF NEW YORK for Martin Scorsese. He crafts an ominous, discordant suite of cues where shrieking string instruments evoke the terror of killer bats. He also uses a gothic organ in the Frighmare Theatre scenes that further lends to the intended cheesiness. Diagetically, West incorporates a few underground punk songs into the mix, giving us a little view into his own particular musical tastes. The sound mix as a whole is incredibly strong for a film this low-budget. Graham Reznick serves as the sound designer, turning in what would be the first of many mixes he’d create for West over the years.
THE ROOST immediately differentiates itself from other indie horror films because of its old-school aesthetic. While most directors of our generation are trying to make slick, glossy horror films with digital cameras, West is appropriating the look of a by-gone era and making it his own. There’s a distinct charm in his approach, a palpable soul. In taking this old-school approach, the evidence of West’s craft and direction becomes more visible. Filmed mainly in West’s native Delaware, THE ROOST is the first appearance of a peculiar signature of West’s, namely that the story revolves around a singular locale. This signature may be borne out of the needs of low-budget indie filmmaking where the locations budget is sorely lacking, but inTHE ROOST, West uses it to his advantage to paint a compelling portrait of the abandoned barn in which our characters take refuge.
THE ROOST is stuffed with references to various non-filmic Halloween-time media traditions, like spooky radio shows and the aforementioned Frightmare Theatre presentation. It’s difficult to tell how much—if any—inspiration is sourced from Zombie’s HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES, which was a similarly old-fashioned horror jaunt that premiered only two years prior to production on THE ROOST. Knowing their shared affinity for 80’s horror, it’s unlikely that West didn’t like Zombie’s film—which makes the similarities to Zombie’s own debut hard to ignore. For example, both films open with the cheesy, late-night Frightmare Theatre conceit.
THE ROOST leveraged Fessenden’s name to draw attention to itself during its South by Southwest festival premiere. But once West filled out the auditorium, attention shifted directly on him, with several critics and horror blogs naming THE ROOST as one of the best films of the year. Now, THE ROOST isn’t a great film by any stretch of the imagination. It’s a serviceable entry in the genre, mostly notable for that fact that it is West’s debut. His direction shows the signs of a young filmmaker, frequently indulging in awkward, unnecessary exposition. But with his effective direction of the horror sequences and convincing visual effects, West is able to hit where it really counts. The film was eventually picked up for distribution by Showtime—quite the feat for any aspiring filmmaker. With the success of THE ROOST, West had staked his territory in the genre and established himself as a director to watch.
THE ROOST is currently available on standard definition DVD via Showtime Entertainment.
Produced by: Larry Fessenden, Susan Leber
Written by: Ti West
Director of Photography: Eric Robbins
Production Designer: David Bell
Editor: Ti West
Music: Jeff Grace