Horror Will Eat Itself: An Interview with Ti West

The renaissance that horror cinema is experiencing of late is a double-edged sword for longtime fans. Good box office numbers mean more horror movies in general, but more horror movies, sadly, also means more bad horror movies — more unwarranted remakes, more unnecessary sequels and more derivative blood bath schlock. It’s enough to leave plenty of horror fans looking for an antidote to the rehashes and gore porn that have dominated the industry of late. And writer/director Ti West’s fourth feature filmHouse of The Devil, recently released on DVD and Blu-Ray, might be just what the doctor ordered.

House of the Devil has deep roots in classic horror: it is atmospheric and spooky, taking more cues from The Haunting than Halloween, resulting in a film that is more concerned with being eerie than shocking. It builds tension gradually and unceasingly, refusing to release it via bloodshed or shrieking phantasms. West is clearly more interested in making audiences squirm for an hour than making them scream for a second, using unnerving silences and too-long static shots to build seat-gripping suspense with minimal special effects. From the bump in the night to just barely seen movement, West’s toolbox contains our most basic, ancestral fears: the unknown, the unseen, the thing which refuses to show itself. And he manipulates these fears to impressive effect, drawing chills from the simplicity of rooms that don’t seem as abandoned as they look, shadows that are just a shade too dark, and phones go on ringing for just a moment too long.

For his own part, West has no bone to pick with films like Saw and Hostel. He doesn’t have any interest in making them, per se, but feels like they take more than their share of punishment from critics like yours truly. “I think both of those franchises have become whipping boys, and I think that’s a little unfair. When horror got really popular about five or six years ago and there was a big resurgence among horror fans and the horror community, the idea that body count is a huge part of horror movies became sort of a zeitgeist,” West observes. “Killing and gore have always been part of horror films, but never as much as they are now, except for maybe the exploitation days.” It’s an interesting note to make, and one that suggests a line drawn between two kinds of horror films on the market today. There are films that are about evoking fear — the methodical, eerie House of the Devil fits this mold, as do recent films like Paranormal Activity and 2007’s The Orphanage — and then there are films that are just about watching violence. It’s violence of a novel and well-done sort, granted, but it remains a fairly blunt cinematic tool, the theatrical equivalent of a gruesome Nascar crash. “…people go to horror movies now and want to see someone’s head get cut off so they can cheer, and I don’t understand that. That doesn’t have anything to do with the movie. That’s like porn, it’s some weird titillation, and that doesn’t really interest me.”

This isn’t to say that characters in West’s films manage to avoid grisly ends — there are plenty of moments in House of the Devil where West demonstrates that he can build just as good a charnel house as anyone out there. But brutality in West’s films is a stop on the road, rather than a destination. “I feel like if the killing on screen doesn’t have some emotional impact regarding what your trying to accomplish, then it really is just exploitation, and I don’t personally get it. I don’t have a problem with that; I just figure I don’t like it, so I won’t see it, you know?” But this may be the very definition of damning with faint praise. While West stops short of a condemnation, he does demonstrate real concern about the effect these films have on the genre as a whole. “I do hope that we move back to, not necessarily non-gory horror movies, but serious horror movies. It seems like horror has become such a post-modern genre, where everyone is so hip to everything and every scene is like a big wink to the audience. I feel like that’s just acknowledging ‘Don’t take it seriously, this is a joke genre.’ And I think that’s a bummer…”

This disdain for the wink wink, nudge nudge nature prevalent in modern horror is evident in the style of House of the Devil, which is obviously influenced by a generation of films without name checking or cribbing from any of them. When asked about what films House of the Devil is an homage to, West is quick to dispute my choice of words. “It’s really … just my sensibilities. I didn’t see it as so much of an homage as much as a period piece, and I tried to be really authentic with the period,” says West. “I think that because that period is so hip and retro and in vogue, I think homage gets thrown around a lot.” But he did point out a couple of films that were influential in his creative process “I might have given some of the creative people a few DVDs to watch and said ‘This is the kind of world I’m thinking of,’ but I’m not a real direct reference sort of guy … The Changeling is one of my favorites movies, and subconsciously there’s maybe a little bit of that in there. But I certainly wasn’t having people watch Rosemary’s Baby and try to accomplish the same thing …” As to Polanski — the influences are there, but they’re probably not the ones you’re thinking of, says West, who sees the shades of the Polish director’s “Apartment Trilogy” present in House of the Devil as “more Repulsion and The Tenant than Rosmeary’s Baby, despite the obvious satanic part. I think those are really great movies about one person dealing with paranoia.”

But West’s ambitions as a filmmaker go well beyond being the next great white hope of horror films. In fact, his success in the genre may ultimately prove a burden as he tries to make different kinds of films, something he’s emphatic about his interest in. “I have plenty of scripts and ideas and all that that are not horror films. The problem is, because I’ve been fortunate to do relatively okay with my other movies, someone will give me money to go and do The Innkeepers,” West’s next film, a haunted house saga that’s currently in pre-production. “But if I try and do a romantic comedy, I hear ‘Well, we’re not going to give you X amount of dollars for that, because we don’t know if you can do that. But we know that you can do the ghost hotel movie very well.’” As far as problems go, though, West recognizes that being a hot property in a particular genre is a good one to have. Rather than worry about being pigeonholed, he instead concentrates on the degree of creative freedom that his success thus far has allowed him. “As long as I’m writing and directing and editing and doing my own thing, it doesn’t really matter to me. I really like the horror genre — it’s not the only thing I like, but as long as I can do what I want with it and work on my own material, then great. If I was sort of attached to someone else’s work, and doing a horror movie as a career move … I don’t know. I tried it, I couldn’t really do it.”

West is presumably referring to Cabin Fever 2, which he also helmed last year. The experience seems to have left a bad taste in his mouth, and when I ask if he has any interest in taking over another of the many sequels and remakes that theaters and store shelves have been crowded with recently, his answer is an unqualified no. “I’d rather just come up with a new idea, or at least rip something off. Remakes and sequels are fine, especially if you can do something really unique with it. But all those things are just career opportunities,” says West, who is more interested in making art than cash. “They all make money — whether they’re good or bad, they make money. Anyone who’s taking those jobs, I don’t believe is really passionate about making another Friday the 13th movie. It’s just another paycheck for them and a chance for their movie to be #1 at the box office, and that’s all it is. It’s a career move. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but to say it’s any more than that is just disingenuous, I think.”

This take on filmmaking is the mark of an auteur in the making. West, who prefers to take the lead on writing, directing, and editing for his films whenever possible, just as he did on House of the Devil doesn’t see any disconnect between the tasks. “I feel like the choices you make when you write, when you shoot and when you edit are all connected. I don’t see it as compartmentalized.” But doesn’t all that creative control have the potential to be a crushing responsibility for the final product? “Yeah, it is daunting, but to me, those things are all the same job — it’s all filmmaking. “