"I wanted to make a very traditional, old-fashioned ghost story with really modern, kind of nerdy-esque characters who didn't really belong in it," he says. And The Innkeepers has a convincing classical feel, as West's camera glides around the lobby and the corridors of the Pedlar with a ghost-like grace that recalls a more genteel era of scary movie.
West's ability to twist familiar, out-of-fashion genre conventions to his own ends is quickly becoming a trademark. In the feature that really put him on the map, 2009's House of the Devil, West paid homage to '80s horror staples: the lone babysitter as the target of evil, and the satanic cult as the vehicle of evil. That film—which captured the fervent love of its small but devoted audience so quickly that the AV Club's Scott Tobias declared it a New Cult Classic a mere four months after its release—bucked the modern horror trend of needing to constantly shock the audience into terror. Instead, West ratchets up the tension with a pace so deliberate that less patient viewers conditioned to thrill-a-minute horror found it a little boring. Those willing to submit to West's expert control of timing and tone were treated to a masterpiece of slow-burn terror.
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West is well aware of the disconnect between what he does and the cheaper scares of many of the horror films that now rake in millions at the multiplex, and The Innkeepers has some satirical fun at their expense. "Generally what they try to do is they try to hit you with a new image or a new sound that's really loud to startle you, and it works," West says of those films. "But I thought it'd be interesting if I did that on everything that had nothing to do with the horror instead of anything that actually had anything to do with the ghost story, playing with the silence just to see if it would work." The misdirected scares do work, and provide for moments where you'll first be startled, and then laugh at the ridiculousness of what just startled you.
There's no rational reason why West's films should be in limited release while films like The Devil Inside are making mountains of cash. That film was hated not just by critics, but also by the audiences who made it such a success its first weekend. That's a triumph of marketing, not filmmaking, and West feels there is a certain responsibility on the consumer to be discerning about what kind of movies their dollars demand. "Hopefully," he says in reference to The Devil Inside's success in marketing a film few actually liked, "[they'll] wise up next time that trick gets pulled."
With any luck, the alternatives they'll turn to are films like West's. The power of horror isn't in the scare; there are simple and superficial formulas for that, just as there are formulas for making audiences cry. Eliciting basic emotions with film isn't that tough. There are bigger, realer things to be scared of in the world than vampires or werewolves. Those beasties, and any other manifestations of evil in movies, are at their best when they're symbolic stand-ins for deeper fears.
Horror that startles us is forgotten the moment we walk out of the theater. But things like fears of mortality, or loneliness, or living lives that won't matter—those are harder to shake. The Innkeepers scares us by taking the familiar and turning it fantastic. We can't dissociate ourselves from the evil because, as in much of the best horror, what's scaring us isn't external; it's everything we fear seeing when we look in the mirror.