Ti West vs. the Unknown

Over the last couple of weeks I saw three of Ti West’s horror films; House of the Devil, The Innkeepers, and The Roost.  (I’m interested in the man’s work, obviously, but not enough so to get me to watch Cabin Fever 2, sorry.) All three had things to recommend them, though in The Roost those things were, well, fewer and farther between (Tom Noonan as a TV horror show host is a pretty huge one, though, admittedly), but I’m really not here to talk about their defects, or, for that matter, about more than one of their qualities.

One of the things that really struck me about seeing all three films so close together was that West left a similar ambiguity in his explorations of the phenomena (for lack of a better word) at the heart of each film. This sort of ambiguity is a subject that’s near and dear to my heart, so I figured it would be worth talking about. While I’ll try to be as coy as I can, this discussion will no doubt feature some significant spoilers about all three movies, so if you’ve not seen them, and are spoiler-phobic, I’d suggest turning back now.

Still with me? Okay, House of the Devil and The Innkeepers are the ones I saw first, and they’re the ones whose similarities of approach are most striking. Each movie deals with a supernatural phenomenon (a Satanic cult in House of the Devil, ghosts in The Innkeepers), but in each movie there is a possible reading (however likely or unlikely) with a purely naturalistic explanation. In both movies, there is a striking lack of exposition, and the phenomenon is never really explained. In House of the Devil we’re all familiar enough with Satanism movies to know what the cultists are trying to do, but they never sit down and explain it to us. In The Innkeepers, Claire just wants to find out if the ghost that’s haunting the hotel is Madeline O’Malley and what she wants. The goal isn’t even to lay the ghost to rest. But Claire never learns what the ghosts want, and neither do we. The ghosts are terrifying, especially in the last minutes, but their motives are never clear, and there is never any satisfying resolution for anyone. Furthermore, Luke keeps trying to tell Claire something (maybe that he is in love with her, but it could be anything), but we never get to hear what it is.

The Roost is far more of a B-movie than the others, though it is self-aware of its B-movie status. In it, four friends break down on their way to a wedding and end up taking shelter in a barn that happens to be filled with flesh-eating bats that turn their prey into the undead. (Are they zombies? Vampires? They behave like zombies, but they always seem to go for the throat, so…?) In most such movies, the presence of the bats would be explained, to the audience if not to the victims. We would see a government genetics lab or a black magic ritual or something. In The Roost there is no explanation. Certainly the couple that owns the barn aren’t keeping the bats there on purpose, as they’re the first victims, and there’s never any explanation given for where the bats come from, or why their victims rise from the dead.

(None of that’s even touching upon The Roost‘s weird framing device, featuring Tom Noonan as a TV horror show host who gets meta-textually involved in the film midway through. Unsurprisingly, that was my favorite part of the movie.)

Anyway, of these films, only The Innkeepers really elevated itself to a position of a favorite of mine, partly because of the subject matter, partly because of the smart injection of humor and character into the proceedings, but the approach to keeping some things unknown really elevated all of them, even the schlocky Roost above whatever level they would otherwise have attained, and means I will definitely be keeping an eye on Ti West’s future endeavors, more Cabin Fever sequels notwithstanding.

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