Monday, May 04, 2009

Movies: Bat-shit crazy.

The reception of Ti West's debut full-length, the low-fi creature feature The Roost, is exemplary of the Internet Age of horror flick criticism.

On its release in Aught Five, the flick was remarkably polarizing. Horror-centric review sources were fulsome with their praise. Bloody Disgusting declared it one of the best movies of the year, "if not THE best!" (Hyperventilating caps and exclamation theirs.) Severed Cinema called it a "wonderful Super 16-mm throwback to the 1970s horror so many of us love and miss" and gave the film their highest rating. Twitch claimed the film justified calling writer/director Ti West the "new Sam Raimi" and said the film compared to Evil Dead and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. And Fangoria called the film an "unheralded horror gem, an unexpected little treasure in the sea of independently made chillers" and compared West to George Romero and, again, Raimi (who, back then, was still being lauded as "the horror kid who made good" and not derided as "the dude who made Spider-Man III who needs to remember his horror roots").

But the fans, they were having none of it. Though BD gave the film 4.5 out o' 5 little skulls, the fans gave it a mediocre 3. (That doesn't sound like a big difference until you think of it in terms of the scale's minimum unit: the half skull. Measured in "half-skulls", BD declared the film just shy of perfection, while their readers sat it near-square in the middle of the scale.) Severed Cinema readers disagreed with the site's masters and gave the film the lowest possible score. Fangoria was spared the reader revolt by dint of its dead-tree format, but imdb – the Hyde Park Speakers' Corner of online fandom – gives the film a weak 4-ish stars out of 10 and the critical comments include terms such as "torturous," "failed," "nothing short of absolute garbage," "truly bottom of the barrel," and – my personal favorite – from Kathy, who, after writing "Eeeeeeek" and announcing that she is also a filmmaker, accuses the cameraman of "scratching his butt" the whole time through the movie and encourages the filmmaker not to film dialog with the actors' backs to the camera (though, honestly, why exactly that pisses her off so much isn't clear). Wonderfully for the purposes establishing parallelism in these two opening paragraphs, there's even a review that begins, "I don't quite agree with Fangoria, that this film is an astonishing achievement of modern horror and that it is a horror gem."

Ironically, many of the genre's biggest promoters found themselves in the same position they regularly ascribe to mainstream critics. The "average" fans were telling them that they'd missed the boat and either championed some obscure piece of preciously self-conscious art-junk or didn't know enough about the genre to spot rubbish. It's an object lesson to would-be Visigoth's determined to destroy the criteria of the ivory tower: There's always another band of Vandals coming hot on your heels.

This polarization – that a film is either brilliant or utter shit – seems to me to be paradigmatic of Web Era criticism. If the tone of Interwebs is any indication, horror fans are constantly having their world rocked. Either they are getting their faces just melted off by the insane super awesomeness of whatever they just saw or, more likely, they a reeling with incomprehending horror at the news that Michael Meyers will – GASP! – appear without his mask in latest remake. Apparently neither the fact that remakes are pretty much universally poo-pooed on sight or the stunningly craptacular popular and critical reception of the F13 reimagimak-a-launch, which had the horror-blog pro-am pooping hockey-mask wearing kittens for weeks leading up to its debut, has in any way inured the fright fancy to the notion that these things won't make them 18 again.

The second thing that is so exemplary is that these passions seem to be spent the moment they're shared. The release of West's flick and the division between the "horror elite" and the horror polloi could have been something amazing. The horror blog-twit pro-am could have used it as an opportunity to look at the values of the community, the changing tastes of the old timers vs. the new blood, or at least questioned what was at the root of the wild divergence of taste. Instead, of course, what happened is that everybody shot their critical wad, put their pants back on, and split before we could even ask if we were going to call one another later. In the defense of the horror fan community, this is somewhat commensurate with the importance of what we're talking about. We're just shooting the breeze about some fright flicks – it ain't like the definitive review of The Roost is going to cure cancer, end the oppression of the toiling classes, break our dependence on non-renewable energy sources, or make Mr. Pelagius any smarter. Still, there something dismaying about the instant amnesia. It smacks of rancor for rancor's sake.

Happily, this means that the unpaid Interwebbian bloviator, like yours truly, now approaching the flick gets to avoid the kerfuffle and toss in their two cents without taking a side in the GFOAT versus Kathy war.

But before that, my friend Cori and her quest for the best mac and cheese in Manhattan. Cori was this woman I used to know. I met her through her boyfriend, a dude named Matt, who I met at a bar called No Idea in the Flatiron District. Once a month Cori would drag Matt out to some new food joint – could be a greasy spoon, could some posh jackets-required joint (this was back when that still existed – now even 21 doesn't bother) – for the sole purpose of trying their mac and cheese. Now what's interesting about this is the Cori never really became a mac and cheese snob. She wasn't looking for innovation or somebody who revolutionized mac and cheese. Rather, it was as if she was trying to find somebody who could magnify its comfort food aspects. She wanted the Platonic mac and cheese. This was, of course, impossible. She ate a lot of mac and cheese, but she never found that elusive plate of perfect mac and cheese.

Matt left her for a talented, but not particularly nice professional cello player. Cori chased a new boy to San Francisco, but left him after only a week. She settled in Chicago; she became a very successful salesperson of packing goods. She excelled in the hot beverage container segment of the market, if I recall. None of this has anything to do with mac and cheese, but I thought you might be curious to know what happened to them.

The point is, though, that Cori ate a ton of mac and cheese. Over time, she developed a pretty exacting taste for who was doing it right and who was screwing it up. She'd say that the premise of good mac and cheese is fairly simple. You have mac. You have cheese. There are a handful of other ingredients you can add to tweak this formula – but, really, the art of good mac and cheese is about taking some staple ingredients and handling them well.

Ti West's The Roost is pretty darn good mac and cheese.

The plot is familiar, though cleverly handled. The film opens with a pomo framing device: A Crypt-Keeperish horror television host (played with hammy reserve by Tom Noonan) announces that, once again, his master is not at home and that the responsibility for introducing the evening's program has devolved to him. After some suitably cheesy banter, he hands us over to The Roost proper.

Curiously, several reviewers, both pro and con, mention the host's involvement in the flick solely at the beginning, a short appearance in the middle, and at the end of the film. This is, I think, incorrect. I believe that his voice appears repeatedly throughout the film, often embedded in various sound-effects or accompanying the music. His strange invention at a later point in the film suggests that he's one of those odd characters – like the home invaders in Funny Games - that seems to understand that he's in a film and that he can, if he wishes, alter the narrative to suit his needs. Viewed this way, several of bits of his typically goofy horror host banter take on a more sinister aspect, such as when he suggests that he's altered the protagonists' travel schedule to suit "our" – his and the viewers' – needs.

The "film" of The Roost then begins. We open on a stretch of rural road. It's nighttime. There's a carload of young folks, three men and one woman. The driver, bespectacled and slightly smarmy Trevor, and the woman, the withdrawn and sullen Allison, are up front, talking and half-listening to an old-timey horror radio show that's being rebroadcast because it's Halloween night. We learn from Allison and Trevor's banter that the foursome are headed to a friend's wedding. Suddenly, a big ol' bat comes barreling straight into their windshield. Before you can say "That's a crap idea" our band of protags have wandered off to the nearest farm house to get help.

The rest of the plot involves them awakening a very irate barn full of vampire bats who, as vampire bats are want to do, turn people into vampires. (Curiously, people refer to the post-vamp bite undead as zombies, though I'm not sure that's what they're supposed to be. I guess one could theorize that the bats have some sort of super-rabies that turns folks into 28 Days Later-ish viral-based "zombies," but I assumed that this was just a particular strain of vampire located far over on the mad-beast vrykolakas side of the vamp-spectrum instead of the suave opera-cape wearing type.) Needless to say, not everybody is making it to the party and, once the bat/undead monkey-shines begin, our protagonists end up in a tense battle for survival.

Let's start with what doesn't quite click. Visually, West has a feel for these minimalist, lonely shots: the sort of image where one human with a flashlight stands framed in a tiny little rectangle of light, engulfed by inky darkness on all sides. Many of these compositions are stylish and striking. However, the limitations of his DV combined with the demands of a night shot and his unfortunate decision to muddy up the result in an effort give his film a vintage '70s feel – even down to artificial scratches and cigarette burns (applied here with a considerably lighter hand and far greater consistency than seen in the Tarantino/Rodriguez vanity project that followed two years later) – forces viewer to try to glean the craftsmanship of these set-ups through a thick smear of murky imagery. [UPDATE: An anonymous reader sets me right in the comments. The grainy look comes from shooting on 16mm film. The scratches and other artifacts in the film were not post-production adds.] The acting is also patchy. The director smartly mitigates the damage done by shooting expended sequences without any dialogue between the characters. This both creates a mood of literal unspeakable tension and, oddly, liberates his actors to emote without the added challenge of trying to bring awkward B-film dialogue to life. Still, the actors are basically trapped in a barn for an hour or so. They carry as much as they can, but it is impossible to ignore the fact that we're not watching seasoned thespians doing their thing.

That said, so much else works.

Though the plot is strictly KISS workshop stuff, West's slow burn approach invests it with real suspense. I remember a time when indie and underground horror was characterized most by its over-the-top splatter that made the "video nasties" and the like so infamous. Now that the anti-hero slashers of the 1980s can be repurposed to shill sneakers and 3D slasher fare is considered a good bet with mainstream audiences, it would seem that the creation of suspenseful, minimalist, almost reserved flicks is now the purview of the indie auteur.

Where ambition outstripped capability in the visual department, the sound department has both in spades. Running through The Roost is this dense sonic stream of retro-horror broadcasts, thunderous silences, surreal fourth-wall busting sound artifacts, well crafted sound-effects, and a soundtrack that evokes a stripped down and punkier version of, say, the intro to Steve Reich's Music for 18 Musicians. West is so confident in his use of sound that his first big "kill" occurs completely in the dark, with only the sound of the violence and horror providing the scares. The old-timey radio broadcast that provides a reoccurring sonic backdrop isn't just a pomo gag, I suspect that West is sincerely inspired by the work of yester-year's radio horror masters.

Finally, The Roost might be the single finest example of how horror filmmakers can use pastiche and allusion without lapsing in a sterile M̦bius strip of fan service or wallowing in a cheap and easy nostalgia. In its fighting trim 80-minute running time, The Roost fuses threads of grindhouse era schlock, radio horror classicism, Silver Age showmanship from horror's television boom, and a distinctly contemporary postmodernism. But here's what separates the flick from the rehash slasher-revival and reheated grindhouse hack work that's dominated the big screen for way too long now РWest genuinely lets each of these threads influence the entire flick and in significant and meaningful ways. The radio horror show introduced at the beginning of the film becomes the paradigm by which the entire film handles sound. The dark-yet-cheesy humor of the television horror host who introduces the film shades into self-aware genre bending. The only misstep is the visuals, which we discussed earlier Рthough, even there, at least West has the conviction to follow through, rather than dumping the style once you feel you've met the minimum requirement (I'm looking at you, QT). There's a way in which The Roost is one of the most inclusive love letters to the genre ever committed to binary code.

The Roost is remarkably accomplished or a debut flick, but it often what pleases the viewer is the promise of more. Greatest film of '05? I don't know about that. It was a big year: The Descent, Devil's Rejects, Hostel, the silent ultra-indie Call of Cthulhu, Romero's return to the "of the Dead" series, and, of course, Komodo versus Cobra. Still, it deserves, and rewards, your attention.

Now who's hungry for mac and cheese?

1 3/4 cups of macaroni
1 1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cups of extra sharp cheddar
3 tablespoons of flour
1 1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
1/4 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
2/3 cup sour cream
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 1/2 cup half-and-half
1 1/2 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1 2/3 cups grate extra-sharp cheddar (this is on top of the cheddar you've already got – you're using all of it – get your heart ready for the overtime)

Cook the mac until just tender. It's getting cooked more, so don't over-do it. Drain well and transfer to a buttered 9-by-13-by2 inch baking dish. Take the 1 1/4 cups of ungrated cheddar and cube it. Add that to the mac in the dish.

Preheat the oven to 350.

Put the flour, the salt, the dry mustard, the black and cayenne papper, and the nutmeg in a mixing bowl. Stir it all up 'till it's mixed.

Now you got to do this next bit in order. It matters. Add the sour cream, then the eggs. Now whisk that mess until it's a single consistency. Whisk in the half-and-half, then the heavy cream, then the Worcestershire sauce. Blend that all up. Then pour it evenly over the mac and cubed cheese. Stir all it all up to blend it.

Top that with the grated cheese, but don't stir that in. Just let it sit on top.

Bake it until the edges set, but the middle's still a little loosey goosey. It should take about a half hour.

When you take it out of the oven, let it cool for about 10 or 15 minutes. That lets the custard set and makes it extra nice.


Sasquatchan said...

At least you bake your mac and cheese.. So you got that part right.

I need to get the Mrs recipe.. People beg her to make it for potlucks etc. I sort-of watch her make it, but I don't know all the secrets, but I'll let you in on one.. Panko, you must use panko. Not cheap ass stale bread crumbs. Panko. I think that's the topping you put on before baking it, but I forget..

CRwM said...


Panko crust, I think that precious. Though you should call that something like "mac and cheese pie" or something. You'll notice no bread or crust in the descriptor mac and cheese.

I kid. I've never been a big fan of the bread crust thing and the grated cheese in this recipe ends up cooking into something like a thicker top, so the extra texture wouldn't add value. Still, I'm always up for an interesting variant. Post it on Hulver and share it with everybody. Just let me know when to look.

Anonymous said...

Nice thoughtful review.

One point - the film was shot on grainy 16mm film - no burns or scratches were added.

CRwM said...


Thanks for the clarification. I've revise the article to make note of it.