A couple of years ago, I caught this movie called The Roost on cable, and it really struck a chord with me.
It was a 2005 film, but it looked and felt like something out of the late 70s or early 80s. But that wasn’t the only reason I liked it. It was a creepy, tense, suspenseful film that delivered an atmosphere of isolation and dread. The story is simple and typical. Kids heading for a Halloween party in the middle of nowhere crash their car in a ditch after a bat dive bombs their windshield. Of course, they have to get out in the middle of the dirt road at night to try to find help. Other than a jack-o-lantern on the porch of the house they come across, there’s really no focus on the Halloween holiday in this film.
The Roost is a bats/zombie hybrid. A roost of bats lives in the creepy old barn at the seemingly abandoned house. If they bite you, you turn into a zombie. The film’s spookiness is due in part to the limited number of people and zombies crawling around the barn.
In heavy retro style, the film uses some classic Argento lighting of red, green, and blue at times, but mostly, it relies on just the drop lighting that illuminates the barn, which reminds me very much of the super dark and shadowy atmosphere at the isolated camp in the original Friday the 13th. Director Ti West allows darkness to be as black as it truly is, immersing viewers in the location. Slow pans, far shots, and sustained still shots are all reminiscent of the most effective camera work of films from the past, instead of the choppy A.D.D. editing used in modern films. Although one character has a cell phone, the film is almost timeless, with no noticeable current cultural references to date it. This seems to be something West shies away from in his films as he celebrates films of the past. The quality of the film is even made to look grainy and flecked with specs you used to see on old VHS tapes.
THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL (2009)
While The Roost is a subtle homage to films from the 80s, Ti West’s second film, the slow burning The House of the Devil, pretty much sets itself in the 80s without ever saying it. This creepfest has people smoking in a public pizza parlor, has the main character using a cassette walkman with spongy headphones, focuses on the use of a pay phone, features corded phones with rotary dials, and doesn’t once show a modern computer, not even in the main character’s dorm room.
The plot is, again, simple but perfect for setting up an atmosphere of isolation. A young college student, desperate for cash, takes a spur of the moment babysitting job at a big house way out in the woods…which leads her into some serious occult trouble. When her friend (who has high 80s hair and heavy mascara) drives her to the house, we get a rear view of the car’s taillights that looks like it was lifted right from the original John Carpenter Halloween when Annie and Laurie are arriving at their babysitting gigs. Later on, the main character looks up the stairwell of the house where she’s babysitting and again it’s straight out of Halloween, when Laurie looks up the stairwell while calling nervously for her friends.
Speaking of horror films that starred Jamie Lee Curtis, the eerie sustained string chords used as this film’s soundtrack are highly reminiscent of the score from the original Prom Night. There are even some classic 80s tracks used in the film. On the car radio can be heard Greg Kihn’s “The Breakup Song (They Don’t Write Me Like That Anymore)” and the song “One of Our Submarines” by Thomas Dolby. The main character at one point puts on her walkman and does a very 80s solo impromptu dance through the house to the sounds of The Fixx’s “One Thing Leads to Another.”
But as cheesy as her dance routine is, the main character in The House of the Devil does something that rarely happens in horror movies—when she gets totally freaked out from being alone in the creepy old house, she turns on EVERY light. Now THAT is realism, and one of many reasons to see this film. As icing on the 80s horror cake, 80s scream queen Dee Wallace has a super short cameo.
CABIN FEVER 2: SPRING FEVER (2009)
While Ti West hasn’t scored himself a major theatrical release yet, he may be on his way, because he’s had one film released directly to DVD…Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever. Obviously it’s not his own creation this time, more a film for hire. But it is a sequel to a major horror release (that I love), so it looks like Ti is on his way. I just hope he doesn’t get pigeonholed into making second rate direct to DVD sequels.
Cabin Fever 2 is fun enough, but it can’t compare to Ti’s own films. It has a more polished, modern feel, although he does manage to throw in some of his 80s references, including songs like the Ramones’s “Somebody Put Something in My Drink,” Sparks’s “The Willys” and “Eaten by the Monster of Love,” a song that just happened to also have been featured in the 80s classic Valley Girl! But even better than that, Ti uses a song from the ultimate late 70s/early 80s horror cheese moment—the disco song Prom Night that was played during that ridiculous disco dance scene between Jamie Lee Curtis and her boyfriend in the original Prom Night. I could NOT believe my ears when it came on!
The plot of Cabin Fever 2 lends itself more to a title like High School Fever. In this far inferior sequel, the infection is spreading through a high school during prom, eventually leading to the entire student body being locked inside, which adds a serious Quarantine element to the film. However, the high school gym dance setting is ripe for Carrie references, which it totally delivers. The eerie blue and red lighting is there, the viewpoint from the stage down at the crowd of students is there, and eventually, chaos erupts and everyone starts running for the gym doors JUST like in Carrie. But to add something new to the mix, there’s a very explicit scene involving the infection’s effects on a teenage boy’s genitals that might make you a lifelong spitter if you aren’t already….
THE INNKEEPERS (2011)
Did this one end Ti’s streak? It was a disappointment to many of his fans, including me. Upon watching it again, I appreciate it a bit more, but I can also see why it is not my Ti fave.
For starters, if the 101-minute run time had been shaved by 11 minutes, this would have been a tighter, better paced film. Ti is loved for his slow burns, but while this one has plenty of his edgy atmosphere and suspended moments to keep you on the edge of your seat, it’s very flat at times and suffers from way too many bogus jump scares as the payoff.
As for the plot, this is sort of like a rehash of The House of the Devil, only with the main girl confined to a hotel instead of a house. It also seems to be hugely inspired by The Shining.
Sara Paxton (The Last House on the Left, Enter Nowhere, Shark Night 3D) is one of only two workers overseeing the shutdown of an inn. There are only two guests in the place the weekend before it closes down for good. A woman with her son is absolutely pointless, and the other one is Kelly McGillis, who is one of the best parts of the film playing a former actress. Unfortunately, she’s underutilized and doesn’t play a clear role when all is said and done. Another pointless appearance comes from pre-Girls fame Lena Dunham, who has a few lines as a coffee shop barista. The scene serves no purpose and should have been cut.
Sara and her male coworker are attempting to prove there are ghosts in the place, and eventually learn of its morbid history. A bride corpse makes a few effective appearances, but the bigger scare is saved for the end: a naked dude who died in a tub. Imagine if the old lady from The Shining had escaped the room. EEK!
But that’s it. it feels like we sit through a bunch of nothing just to get to a creepy chase scene. And the final few moments muddle the whole conclusion rather than clarifying anything or tying everything together. Hugely disappointing.