Growing up in Delaware, Ti West was as far away as any American child could be from the movie-making magic of Hollywood. Still, in finding ways to keep himself entertained as an only child and taking an extracurricular Film History course in high school, he discovered an appreciation for cinema.
At age 18, West left the Diamond State to complete a film program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, where he befriended professor and filmmaker Kelly Reichardt. Reichardt connected the young film student with producer Larry Fessenden and, when the two eventually met for coffee, West’s collection of short films were enough to impress the Glass Eye Pix founder and spark a lasting relationship. Upon graduation, West worked at a clothing store until Fessenden made him a life-changing proposition: “If the only thing stopping you from making a movie is money, what if I gave you a little money? Could you make a movie?” Disillusioned with his retail job, West eagerly agreed and was given $50,000 to make his first feature film, The Roost.
The Roost premiered at South by Southwest in 2005. West attended the festival and made connections with other first-time filmmakers, but, once it was all said and done, he returned home and was back to folding jeans at his local mall. The following year, West attended SXSW again (this time as guest) and was stunned to see that Joe Swanberg, who he befriended the previous year as both filmmakers were making their directorial debuts, was there with his second movie. This motivated West to pitch a second movie to Fessenden; one he said could be made for a mere $15,000. That is how Trigger Man was made. From there, the filmmaker kept the ball rolling, directing works such as The House of the Devil, Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever, The Innkeepers and The Sacrament before taking a six-year hiatus from features after In a Valley of Violence. This year, the genre auteur returned to feature filmmaking with not one, but two acclaimed horror works, X and Pearl. Throughout his 17-year-long career, West has consistently wowed genre audiences with his unique flavors of horror, bringing his flair for visual brutality and slow-burning narratives to a wide range of horror subgenres and archetypes, from slashers and psychopaths to charismatic cult leaders and the paranormal.
While we await MaXXXine, the much anticipated third installment of his murderous X universe, there are nine other features for us to sink our teeths into.
Here is every Ti West film, ranked:
9. Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever (2009)
The second installment in the Cabin Fever series swaps the first film’s remote cabin setting for a small American town. Spring Fever picks up shortly after the events of Eli Roth’s 2002 film. In its opening scene, Paul (Rider Strong) emerges from a creek, wanders through some woods and makes his way onto the highway, where he is blown to bits by an oncoming school bus. Unbeknownst to the town, the creek Paul was lying in is now contaminated with a flesh-eating virus—it also, regrettably, acts as a source for a popular water company that serves the local high school. When students drink the contaminated water just in time for prom, their night of awkward teenage sexual encounters and school dance angst becomes life-threatening.
Whether or not Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever can even be considered a Ti West film is up for debate. According to the director himself, it’s not. West famously disowned the project after extensive re-editing and re-shoots from its producers distorted his original vision. West went as far as to request that his directing credit be replaced with the popular “Alan Smithee” pseudonym, but was denied. Although West shot the footage and is credited as a co-story writer, he cites Spring Fever’s editing as the main source of his disapproval. In 2012, West described the disconnect between his intent and the final product using a pop culture analogy: “It’s sort of like Dane Cook telling Seinfeld jokes. It’s like, the material is kinda okay, but the delivery’s all messed up. It’s because it’s being presented incorrectly.” It’s been over a decade since the Spring Fever debacle and, though the director says there are no hard feelings towards Lionsgate or the producers, the incident highlights the importance he places on the editing process. A self-described “personal” filmmaker, West has written, directed and edited all of his feature films prior to and after this project.
8. Trigger Man (2007)
Trigger Man is a thriller that follows three big-city friends on a deer hunting trip gone terribly wrong. When the film begins, Sean (Sean Reid), Reggie (Reggie Cunningham) and Ray (Ray Sullivan) enthusiastically wave goodbye to their Manhattan setting, but their sense of excitement quickly fades as the trio descend deeper and deeper into the woods and discover that they themselves have become the targets in someone’s sadistic hunting game. The film’s incredibly low-budget, found footage-like aesthetics and simple narrative create a strong sense of verisimilitude throughout. The feature is reminiscent of Prey, West’s 2001 short film that depicts two friends being hunted down by a mysterious beast. Beyond their narrative similarities, both works highlight the filmmaker’s resourcefulness in editing, as he is able to utilize non-visual cinematic elements such as pacing and sound to build suspense and add production value to otherwise modest budgets.
7. The Roost (2005)
West’s feature debut tells the harrowing story of four friends’ ill-fated journey to a destination wedding. When they crash their car along a secluded highway, the foursome seek shelter in an elderly couple’s farmhouse. Here, the group breaks the first rule of horror-film survival when they agree to split up to look for help. Their spatial disconnect proves fatal to the group when they discover that the barn they have sought safety in is actually home to a colony of bloodthirsty zombie bats.
This campy blend of classic horror villains unfolds as if it were a segment on an old-fashioned, black-and-white horror movie marathon show. The story is introduced and concluded by a creepy, Elvira-type host who breaks the fourth wall to speak to viewers and prime us for the journey ahead.
The film is an especially fun watch today because it draws a clear line between where West started and the career he has today. In many ways, the film is similar to X (or should I say, X is similar to The Roost) in that it showcases the filmmaker’s ability to take a relatively simple story and mundane location and create a genuinely entertaining horror work. Other similarities include the terrifying elderly couple, the farmhouse setting, broadcasts on the car radio that foreshadow the characters’ inevitable doom and even the use of car headlights to paint a character in a bloody red hue. X is The Roost fully realized, a work perfected by years of experience and the financial backing of a company like A24. The Roost is a promise, a testament to a first-time director’s potential.
6. The Sacrament (2013)
The Sacrament adds a unique twist to the found footage subgenre. Heavily inspired by the real-life events of the Jonestown Massacre, the film is constructed as a Vice investigative report and told entirely through the recordings of a news crew who travel to an isolated community inhabited by American expatriates. Although the community is heavily guarded by men with high-powered firearms, the visit begins fairly routinely. Vice journalists Sam (A. J. Bowen) and Jake (Joe Swanberg) interview various commune members while fashion photographer Patrick (Kentucker Audley) catches up with his sister who resides there. The first interviewees have nothing but great things to say about the community, but as the journalists speak to more members and meet Father (Gene Jones), the commune’s beloved leader, they get the sense that something much more sinister is occurring just below the surface. The film is a slow-burn that methodically piles on tension and bizarre encounters until all hell breaks loose in its third act. When the film comes to a climax, it holds nothing back and dives head first into twisted brutality and abuse of apocalyptic cults.
5. In a Valley of Violence (2016)
After having made six horror features back-to-back, West decided he needed a break from the genre. So, he made In a Valley of Violence, a Western packed with black comedy, lighthearted moments and great performances. Ethan Hawke is Paul, a mysterious drifter making his way across the American wilderness to reach his final destination in Mexico. Accompanied by his loyal companion, an adorable dog named Abbie, he passes through the mostly-deserted town of Denton. In Denton, Paul finds himself in trouble with the sheriff, a deeply insecure and obnoxious man by the name of Gilly (James Ransone). This run-in with Gilly triggers an event that sets Paul off on a quest for revenge.
At times, the outrageousness of many of Denton’s inhabitants creates a sort of silly, comedic atmosphere, but also serves to critique toxic masculinity and poke fun at the classic Western cowboy. The “town idiots” are genuine idiots who weaponize nepotism and intimidation to do as they please. These sometimes over-the-top performances are leveled with action sequences that combine music and timing to effectively build tension and establish stakes. Though In a Valley of Violence is West’s only non-horror feature to date, it’s not to say that it’s missing the filmmaker’s signature of on-screen violence. As the name suggests, the film is bursting with murder, savagery and filth.
4. The Innkeepers (2011)
The Innkeepers is West’s take on the paranormal. The film follows Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) on their last days of work at Yankee Pedlar Inn. Intrigued by rumors of the historic hotel’s haunted past, the pair take its scheduled closing as an opportunity to go on a ghost-hunting adventure.
West succeeds in building a genuinely eerie atmosphere, but the film is especially triumphant in crafting characters that feel real and three-dimensional. Apart from her encounters with ghosts, hotel clerk Claire finds herself navigating a quarter-life crisis. She’s reflecting on her life and her job at the inn and wondering if she could be doing more. Or if she should be doing more. Her troubled mental state is reflected in the film’s antiquated setting. Taking place almost entirely in Yankee Pedlar, the work creates a sense of suffocation, a desire for change. Claire feels trapped in her job and life and, by the end of the film, so do we. It’s a feeling many of us have faced at least once in our lives—and what I imagine West felt as a festival-awarded filmmaker who had to return to his day job folding jeans at his local mall. Claire’s relatability and internal personal struggle make the film’s conclusion all the more bleak.
Interestingly enough, the hotel is the real-life location where the crew of The House of the Devil stayed during production. When crew members reported strange occurrences—opening and closing of doors, television sets turning off and on by themselves, feelings of a strange presence—West got the idea for this ghost story. Having already stayed at the hotel and knowing its layout, he figured that shooting on the location would be affordable and within his reach. This sort of resourceful, indie-producer thinking that brought upon The Innkeepers is also what made a film like Pearl possible. The notion that you could take an already existing location or set and milk a second feature film from it is imaginative to say the least.
3. Pearl (2022)
The boldness of Ti West and Mia Goth to script Pearl in a mere days-long quarantine window is a commendable, gobsmacking feat. The film wears its technicolor dreamcoat spiritedly well, and Goth conjures an origin performance—both on paper and screen—that’s comfortably lived-in. The problem is, there are stretches where Pearl feels like it was conceptualized on the fly so as not to waste New Zealand’s production transformation into Texas for X. While West’s sleazy ‘70s slasher remains one of my champion horror titles of 2022, Pearl is more like giddily deranged add-on downloadable content that makes for an unexpected bite-sized treat. Kudos to the accomplishment, and it’s an ax-swinging slice of bad-vibes hoedown kookiness, but there’s a particular substance missing that X oozes. Pearl is a bizarre descent into the title character’s self-obsessed fantasy world. Cinematographer Eliot Rockett reframes the opening of X by swinging open barn doors to frame our expectations—only there’s no police crime scene this time. Showtune orchestras swell, and a Crayola box of vibrant colors makes Pearl’s imagination pop against the yellowest hay bails, greenest pastures and richest crimson bloodstains. West wants you to believe cartoon birds will fly through Pearl’s window and dress her like a Disney princess, ready to be whisked away by either her husband Howard (Alistair Sewell) after his return from WWI or a tempting local theater projectionist (a studly Bohemian played by David Corenswet). Pearl is visualized through the delusional girl’s fixation on 1918’s media highlights, allowing old-school Hollywood homages to wash away X’s sweltering slasher grime. Enter Goth, whose range spans Dorothy to Dahmer as disillusioned by neon marquee lights that might one day spell her name. She deserves mention alongside Toni Collette (Hereditary) and Jane Levy (Evil Dead) when ranking standout contemporary horror performances. Pearl is a fever dream of choreographed dancing, decapitations and Mia Goth carrying the weight of all 100+ minutes. West’s current muse is stark raving brilliant in an experimental slasher that’s a bit less meaty and fulfilling than X. That’s less a condemnation, more a note of comparison—which might be moot for some, because the films are so markedly different. Pearl’s successes will instigate proper horror-themed watercooler talk with good reason because it’s plenty buzzworthy and bonkers, all thanks to Goth’s crazed presence. You’re here for Pearl, and she’s ready to entertain—in a diversion like this, that’s worthwhile enough.—Matt Donato
2. X (2022)
X is a remarkable and unexpected return to form for director Ti West, a decade removed from an earlier life as an “up and coming,” would-be horror auteur who has primarily worked as a mercenary TV director for the last 10 years. To return in such a splashy way, via an A24 reenvisioning of the classic slasher film, intended as the first film of a new trilogy or even more, is about the most impressive resurrection we’ve seen in the horror genre in recent memory. X is a scintillating combination of the comfortably familiar and the grossly exotic, instantly recognizable in structure but deeper in theme, richness and satisfaction than almost all of its peers. How many attempts at throwback slasher stylings have we seen in the last five years? The answer would be “countless,” but few scratch the surface of the tension, suspense or even pathos that X crams into any one of a dozen or more scenes. It’s a film that unexpectedly makes us yearn alongside its characters, exposes us (graphically) to their vulnerabilities, and even establishes deeply sympathetic “villains,” for reasons that steadily become clear as we realize this is just the first chapter of a broader story of horror films offering a wry commentary on how society is shaped by cinema. Featuring engrossing cinematography, excellent sound design and characters deeper than the broad archetypes they initially register as to an inured horror audience, X offers a modern meditation on the bloody savagery of Mario Bava or Lucio Fulci, making old hits feel fresh, timely and gross once again. In 2022, this film is quite a gift to the concept of slasher cinema.—Jim Vorel
1. The House of the Devil (2009)
It’s difficult to discuss The House of the Devil without acknowledging its clear inspirations, a plethora of 1970s and 1980s horror films that range from Rosemary’s Baby and The Wicker Man to The Devil Rides Out or Night of the Demons. This is by intent—director Ti West is by no means trying to avoid these conversations and comparisons, although The House of the Devil doesn’t truly reference any of them TOO directly. Rather, it is suffused with a feeling of creepy familiarity, as if you once saw the film in the long-distant past, or had it described to you by a friend. Babysitters in peril, satanic cults operating in the background, a silent house with a protagonist spending a lonely night by herself…where have I heard all of this before? The film is like a half-remembered dream. It’s that tone; that creepingly familiar feeling, that makes The House of the Devil an unexpectedly effective, suspenseful exercise in classic horror cinema. It’s the story of a young woman hired to spend a night babysitting at a remote country estate, but when she arrives it’s immediately clear that the clients are not what you’d call conventional parents. In fact, they confide to her, there are no children here at all—her actual duty is to simply mind the house and make sure the family’s “infirm” grandmother is alright, although the job largely consists of simply wiling away the hours and waiting for the owners to return. I guess it’s up to our protagonist’s curiosity to get the best of her, until she’s stalking through the darkened corridors of the home, gradually becoming more suspicious about the odd folks who were so desperate to hire her for the night.—Jim Vorel
Kathy Michelle Chacón is a Gen-Z writer, academic and filmmaker based in sunny California. When she’s not writing for Paste, Film Cred or Kathychacon.com, you can find her eating pupusas, cuddling with her dog Strawberry or sweating her face off somewhere in the Inland Empire.