Over the course of a decade, director Ti West had been quietly building an accomplished body of independent feature film work in the horror genre. In the absence of breakout hits, he had nonetheless managed to accumulate a notable degree of creative and cultural capital that enabled his continued output. It was only a matter of time before the indie cred he generated with films like THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL (2009), THE INKEEPERS (2011) and THE SACRAMENT (2013) could be leveraged towards his first gig directing for prime-time television. That time arrived in 2015, at the height of what has come to be known as the Golden Age of Television– an age in which the proliferation of limited series and serialized content would attract a caliber of directing and performance talent normally reserved for cinematic features. A lot of good television has come out of this era, but so has a lot of bad– and, unfortunately, West’s first two efforts in this arena would fall into the latter category. The constricting nature of the medium ultimately stifles his creative individuality, resulting in a pair of perfectly serviceable, yet anonymous and uninspired, episodes.
SCREAM: “THE DANCE” (2015)
In 2015, MTV released its serialized reboot/sequel to the SCREAM horror franchise, becoming a part of the larger wave of TV series adapted from iconic films. West’s experience with horror, particularly the teeny-bopper variety seen in his disowned feature CABIN FEVER 2: SPRING FEVER (2009), positioned him as an ideal candidate to helm an episode of the show.
The series was executive produced by SCREAM stewards Wes Craven and the Weinstein Brothers, but the showrunners depart entirely from the established franchise canon in a bid to update the property for a new generation. An inspired choice finds the show incorporating the framing device of a podcast, a la SERIAL, to detail the exploits of a new generation of beautiful teenagers trying to evade a mysterious masked murderer in the sleepy town of Lakewood. West directs “THE DANCE”, the penultimate episode of the first season that culminates in an eventful Halloween dance. For such a high profile property as SCREAM, there’s surprisingly little in the way of familiar talent– indeed, the only recognizable face here is Bella Thorne, and even then you’re probably asking yourself “who?” as you read this. The acting is fairly awful across the board, with MTV seemingly banking on the fresh-faced beauty of its young unknown cast distracting us from noticing.
Beyond the appearance of Halloween iconography enabled by the titular school dance, there’s little to no evidence of West’s hand here. Well-known for his vintage visual style and fondness for shooting on film, here he must service the pre-existing digital aesthetic, which bears all the hallmarks of a fast TV shoot– utilitarian and blunt lighting, the deployment of faster handheld and steadicam moves instead of deliberate dolly or crane setups, etc. All this being said, West does allow some creative ambition to shine through, staging a scene in which the town sheriff makes a shocking discovery during a house call in one, unbroken tracking shot. The episode also includes a teaser prologue, which West renders in a harsh green color cast, and peppers with POV shots and surveillance camera angles that recalls the found-footage conceit of THE SACRAMENT.
SCREAM: “THE DANCE” is currently available on Netflix.
SOUTH OF HELL: “TAKE LIFE NOW” (2015)
West’s second directorial effort in the television realm is “TAKE LIFE NOW”, an episode of the little-known WEtv show SOUTH OF HELL. Starring Mena Suvari and absolutely nobody else we’ve ever seen before, SOUTH OF HELL styles itself as a campy Southern Gothic series in the vein of TRUE BLOOD or TRUE DETECTIVE but faceplants in its execution. Concerning something about demons inside people who can appear with the simple application of cheap green contact lenses, the story is a muddled mess of horror cliches and formulaic plotting. West’s hiring for “TAKE LIFE NOW” no doubt originated with his relationship to the show’s executive producer, fellow horror director Eli Roth. The episode finds the show’s characters getting involved with a mind-control cult disguised as a self-help program and led by a charismatic charlatan– a plot that echoes the setup of West’s THE SACRAMENT and most likely further facilitated his hiring.
Drunk on the spooky atmosphere of its South Carolinian setting, SOUTH OF HELL whole-heartedly embraces the iconography of the resurgent Southern Gothic subgenre, especially its trashier aspects. Again, West is compelled to replicate a visual aesthetic that had been determined long before he was brought on board, gamely working with cinematographer Walt Lloyd in crafting the digital, harshly-lit image. A muted color palette deals primarily in large swaths of teal, amber, and green– a common color scheme for the genre. The cinematography is easily the strongest aspect of the show, at least as I could judge from this particular episode, but it still can’t overpower the distinct whiff of bad fan-fiction that stinks up the overall proceedings.
Despite the deliberate absences of his distinct directorial signatures, West nonetheless delivers competent work that plays into his genre wheelhouse. This pair of episodes nonetheless marks an important milestone in West’s burgeoning career– by leveraging his success in the indie sector into paying work that will keep his skills sharp and his name on the callsheets, he continues to build a solid financial platform that will enable his creative freedom in larger, more-ambitious endeavors.
SOUTH OF HELL: “THE DANCE” is currently available on iTunes.
SCREAM: “THE DANCE” Credits:
Written by: Jill E. Blotevogel
Director of Photography: Yaron Levy
Production Designer: Burton Jones
Editor: Amy E. Duddleston
Music: Jeremy Zuckerman
SOUTH OF HELL: “TAKE LIFE NOW” Credits:
Executive Produced by: Eli Roth, Jason Blum
Written by: Matt Lambert, Jacob Epstein
Director of Photography: Walt Lloyd
Production Designer: Carlos Menendez
Edited by: Tim Minkovich, Tim Streeto
Music by: Nathan Whitehead