A movie with bats in its belfry, “The Roost” celebrates and restores the 1970s B-horror pic with zero gloss and terrific, rough-hewn craft. Imagining what happens when a group of young people en route to a friend’s wedding get sidetracked at a farm taken over by vampire bats, debuting helmer Ti West taps into the realist-horror spirit of mentor and exec producer Larry Fessenden, and makes a scarier pic than any by his master. Distrib Vitagraph should have no problem finding eyeballs for horror fare this genuinely creepy. Future midnight haunts are a lock.
Framed by a TV host intro, intermission and exit (played cheekily by Tom Noonan in full Igor garb), pic manages to mostly survive this arch and ultimately distracting device that finally provides one scary ending too many.
Heart of the matter is a foursome, including brother and sister Elliott and Allison (actual siblings Wil and Vanessa Horneff), friend Trevor (Karl Jacob) and somewhat distant and grouchy friend Brian (Sean Reid), all in a car on a dark country road on Halloween. Their trip is suddenly halted by something that crashes into car, leaving them stranded.
A cut to an elderly farm couple (Richard Little, Barbara Wilhide) who go a bit too far into their enormous adjacent barn generates effective suspense. Pic’s first sighting of the cavernous interior sets the tone for the rest of the film, which extracts maximum benefit from the absence of light (worked with considerable inventiveness by lenser Eric Robbins) and the suggestive power of sound (magnificently recorded and designed by Graham Reznick).
It’s this same farm that’s closest to the group’s car, and after they trudge through pitch darkness, the place’s homey atmosphere appears to be a safe haven. West’s script wastes little time dallying with character development, neatly establishing a rift between Brian, who insists on staying near the light, and Elliott and Trevor, who search for help.
After the murky open spaces of the early scenes, action shifts to the vast barn, which conveys a similar physical effect as “2001: A Space Odyssey’s” huge, tomb-like space station — only with the lights turned off. What was once used by humans as, among other things, a pen for animals now becomes the ideal hunting space by animals upon humans — a concept that West ingeniously mines.
Even the inevitable process of characters being picked off one by one never feels tedious thanks to smart breaks in the action –though one of them (a TV time-out) stops the movie cold.
Since the bat victims pop back to life as zombies, survivors are in a real mess. As a sly joke, Fessenden emerges at the end as a tow-truck driver who turns into bat food. A double-dose of shock effects at the close is excessive and easily trimmed.
West takes advantage of his low budget every step of the way, including a cast of mostly unknowns who never feel like they’re recycling old horror chestnuts, and whose unfamiliarity only turns the suspense screws tighter.
The sole concern left by “The Roost” is if West can resist the inevitable Hollywood offers for bigger-scaled genre projects and follow Fessenden’s indie example, which this young helmer appears to have absorbed into his bloodstream.