Filmmaker Ti West says his new horror film is in the vein of The Shining, not Saw.
Monsters and madmen, ghosts and goblins, demons and disease. Horror cinema offers up an A (aliens) to Z (zombies) of items to be frightened of. But do any of them really measure up to the existential dread of being 25, stuck in a dead-end job, and lacking the skills or the ambition to get out? That's a trap more difficult to escape than anything dreamed up by Jigsaw, the creative torturer and Rube Goldberg aficionado at the center of the Saw series.
Jigsaw was the face of '00s horror just as surely as the hockey-masked visage of Jason Voorhees came to define the '80s, but both of the series they anchored have unfortunately helped to redefine the horror film as a vehicle for cheap thrills, ignoring the genre's deeper powers. Director Ti West, whose new film, The Innkeepers, hits selected theaters today, thinks horror can do a lot more.
"I'll tell people about my movies, and they'll say, 'I don't watch horror movies,'" West told The Atlantic. "And I'll say, yeah, but what about The Shining? What about The Exorcist? 'Oh, well that's different.' Most people like The Shining, The Exorcist, Rosemary's Baby. They think they're terrifying movies and really great works of art, but they don't associate that with the horror genre."
In much the same way, many people might watch The Innkeepers and not think of it as horror either. The film takes place in The Yankee Pedlar, an old, small town Connecticut hotel where two desk clerks, Claire and Luke (Sara Paxton and Pat Healy) are working the inn's final weekend before it closes for good, riding out the endless hours on a wave of ennui and apathy. There isn't much for them to do. No more than two rooms are ever occupied at any one time during the weekend. As Luke observes, it's not hard to figure out why they're going out of business.
Faced with a whole lot of time to kill, the pair turns to some amateur ghost hunting at the reputedly haunted Pedlar. Luke has previously encountered the spirits who are said to haunt the hotel's hallways, and is attempting to monetize his otherworldly contact by collecting some evidence for a rather hilariously amateurish website he's building. Claire, who's never seen any strange occurrences herself, is an enthusiastic assistant, mostly because she has little else going on in her life.
That absence of direction is what The Innkeepers is really about, and where its real horror lies. West's film is a visual manifestation of the trapped psychology and the deeply unsettling anxieties of the aimless. He accomplishes this with cleverly placed peripheral characters that he describes as "representations of where you can go in life." One of the hotel's rooms is occupied by a mother and her young son; she's having marital trouble and needs to get away from home for a few days. Another is a barista saddled with relationship problems so tedious to hear about that Claire bolts the coffee shop without even getting her drink when forced to listen to them. A sad old man shows up after the death of his wife to spend one last night in the room where they had their honeymoon decades ago. All roads lead back to the Pedlar. Add in the ghost of a bride who committed suicide in one of the rooms, and one can't even escape after death.
Of course, representing the fear of existential inertia onscreen necessarily means that for much of The Innkeepers, not a whole lot happens. Claire and Luke talk. There's an occasional interaction with the guests. Claire and Luke talk some more. If there's such a thing as a mumblecore horror film, this is it. Only unlike the ramshackle amateurish aesthetic that often defines that indie sub-genre, West's film feels meticulously planned out.
"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.