After writer-director Ti West's throwback horror film The House of the Devil became a modest critical and commercial hit last year, it occurred to me that there were probably a lot of people who didn't know about his earlier work. Because I was one of them, I tracked down copies of his two previous efforts, Trigger Man and The Roost, and figured I'd check them out sooner or later. After attending last week's SXSW "Directing the Dead" panel which Cinematical's own Scott Weinberg moderated and West participated in, it seemed appropriate that I watch them sooner, perhaps for work as much as pleasure.
Because one of the limitations of this article series is that the films covered must be at least five years old, however, The Roost was West's only eligible film, which is why it, rather than his more recent Trigger Man, is the subject of this week's "Shelf Life." And while this hardly seems like a film that many will be visiting for more than the first time, it seemed a good opportunity to likewise immerse myself in the film with the pure benefit of hindsight, not to mention a growing affection for West's films in general, in the process of poring over this fledgling effort.
The Facts: After its debut at the 2005 SXSW Film Festival, The Roost enjoyed a short-lived theatrical run in New York before eventually landing on DVD in 2006. The film was West's feature directorial debut, and it followed four twentysomething kids en route to a wedding who are waylaid by a swarm of bats that turn their victims into flesh-eating zombies.
What Still Works: Anyone familiar with The House of the Devil will already be acclimated with West's measured pacing and minimal storytelling, and this film seems to set up virtually all of the hallmarks of his future work: the characters are sensible if not quite smart, the scares occasionally manipulative but almost always well-earned, and the payoff of that patient storytelling approach is worth the wait.
In addition to his visual and structural techniques, however, what's most remarkable about West as a filmmaker is his seemingly unerring sense of psychological manipulation, most of which is woven invisibly into the fabric of the story. For example, West keeps the audience off balance by not introducing two of the characters in the film's only car until after it crashes, and then parses out small details about all four of them over the course of multiple scenes rather than providing a single, clumsy expository rant. Rather than dragging out the prospect of a rescue, then, West brings the stranded road-trippers a police officer in short order, both lulling the audience into a sense of safety and framing that development at a point in the plot that suggests more dangerous things are yet to occur.
Later, he expertly separates the characters from one another and puts them in locations that seem adjacent but feel disjointed; mind you, this is admittedly horror-101 kind of stuff, but West's ability to execute these conventions without them feeling hackneyed or overstated is what distinguishes his work from that of his contemporaries. Further, he uses his budgetary limitations to his advantage, creating atmosphere by having the characters use only flashlights for illumination, and generally obscuring the computer-generated bats in darkness just enough for them to feel real without trying to make them, rather than their attacks, the purpose of each scene in which they appear.
What Doesn't Work: Although there's a satisfying payoff at the end of the movie, at least as far as final scares go, I don't really get the horror-theater framing device, and generally it feels like it exists to pad out the running time to feature length. These segments feel particularly problematic because it's not clear (a) how authentic West wants them to be, and (b) at how many levels he wants them to work. In the opening scenes, there's a picture-tube frame that makes Tom Noonan's introduction feel like the opening of a TV show, but later in the film, the image reverts to the same black and white, but there's no picture tube; meanwhile, there are a number of occasions in which the movie-world and the horror-theater world seem to sort of overlap, and there doesn't seem to be a larger motivation for integrating the two, except perhaps as further reiteration of the film's collective genre pastiche.
What's The Verdict: Although it feels more like a work of promise than actual delivery, The Roost holds up pretty well. The superficial description of its plot above doesn't do justice to the complications, if not complexities, of what ultimately happens in the film: it's absolutely part killer bat movie, but it's also an Evil Dead-style zombie-monster movie where the rules aren't really clear, but they don't need to be; and further, it's a fairly standard young-adults-on-the-run movie, albeit with characters that are more sympathetic and compelling than typical horror movie protagonists. Although I would primarily recommend it to folks who really loved The House of the Devil and were taken by surprise by that film's retro-modern feel, The Roost is ultimately a case study in how to maximize minimal budgets, achieve something effectively scary, and satisfy both filmmakers and audiences at the same time.