Fantasia Festival Report: The Roost

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The advance buzz on Ti West's debut film The Roost has been simply deafening, with people lining up to proclaim West the next Sam Raimi. Does he have the goods to back that up? According to Philippe Gohier he does ...

Of course, the movie is set on Halloween night. Of course, the four attractive teenagers driving to a friend's wedding get their car stuck in a ditch. Of course, they set out on foot and find an abandoned country house, with an adjacent vampire-bat-infested barn. Of course, none of them seem to have any idea what will follow. Of course, we do.

Riding confidently on a crest of clichés, Ti West's feature film debut succeeds not in spite of its hokey horror-pastiche premise, but rather because of it. From its opening sequence, with a midnight-movie styled intro and crypt-keeper host, to the campy gore that follows, West shows us that there is nothing wrong with the horror-movie archetype as long it's crafted right.

Borrowing loosely from the tradition that spawned Evil Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Roost tracks the terror that awaits Allison, Elliot, Trevor, and Brian once they ditch their car to find help. That they fall prey to bloody, mangled zombies and bloodthirsty bats should be expected by anyone in attendance. That they fall prey to West's fantastically lurid vision is how the points are scored.

Despite its gory special effects, fast-paced editing, and shaky handheld-camera shots, West's success is mostly derived from his restraint. In one particularly frightening scene, West keeps the camera on a flashlight - away from the action - letting the audience's imagination do the work for him. (He or she was wise who once said that there is nothing quite as sordid as the mind of a censor...) Exemplifying the restraint West will show throughout the film, the scene places West securely on the right side of the cheap scares vs. legitimate fright dichotomy. Rather than exploiting his audience for mere surprise-scare tacticts, The Roost commits itself to generating the kind of the paranoid fear found only in the films which have evidently served as inpiration to West.

West's restraint also allows him to keep an impressive tunnel-vision-like focus on his victims, detailing every step of their agony. As the four become increasingly isolated from each other, they gradually succumb to primal emotions, ranging from bouts of violent paranoia to spells of absolute stasis. The slow emotional degradation of the characters is absolutely essential in establishing the legitimacy of their distress.

Unfortunately, the flow of the film is somewhat interrupted in the middle of the descent into depravity when West cuts to a sequence with the crypt-keeper. The film had managed, by this point, to outgrow its initial homage qualities and stand on its own. It is perhaps West's modesty that got the best of him, as he sought to remind viewers of the tradition that inspired him; it nevertheless proves to be a rare display of self-indulgent nostalgia. Moreover, the film does not contain distinct halves that need to have their merits set apart from each other.

Thankfully, the plot plows through crypt-keeper sequence, and the momentary distraction is long-forgotten by the wildly captivating ending. Besides, much of the film's charm emanates from its setting rather than its kitsch value. Though the “midnight movie" vibe certainly gives it a contemporary feel, its generic, unidentifiable setting is much more integral to its ambient paranoia. The tight shots and rapid-fire editing portray the farm house as essentially rural; it is, at once, like every distant local and like none other. As such, it becomes dizzyingly foreign and familiar, simultaneously close and distant..

Indeed, combined with an immaculate score, the clever use of special effects, and West's disciplined, deft direction, The Roost shows that West needn't shine a light on anyone else's work to make his own seem brighter.

Review by Philippe Gohier.

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