Keeping In Line

31 May 2012 | 2:52 pm | Ian Barr

"It plays as a genuine comedy for a huge part of it. The people who are hardcore horror fans seem to be let down." The House Of The Devil director Ti West talks about his new film, The Innkeepers.

For a certain breed of horror movie fans, Ti West is surely some kind of hero. On one hand, he's an indie director who makes films “for totally self-absorbed personal reasons”, and whose most recent features have played at Austin's annual SXSW festival. “Outside of directing movies, I [have] no other skills… if this movie doesn't work out I go back to selling shoes or being a busboy or a waiter or something,” the director laments, maverick spirit in check. But aside from certain cast-members popping up in his films (the ubiquitous Greta Gerwig; Tiny Furniture/Girls' Lena Dunham), West's old-school genre exercises in gore-free horror atmospherics are pretty far-removed from the micro-dramatic naturalism of the 'mumblecore' crew, or the vague inkling of what one expects an independent film to be.

Part of the reason he also stands above the pack of mainstream horror filmmakers is that he sees unrealised potential in the genre. “The reality is that horror movies are mostly not very good, and they're mostly very derivative and similar to each other, and are about shocking and things like that. So people have a preconceived notion of what they are.”

His two most recent films, 2009's House Of The Devil and his latest, The Innkeepers, both received critical acclaim, but West acknowledges they're an acquired taste. “I've watched [The Innkeepers] with audiences all over the world, and it plays as a genuine comedy for a huge part of it. I can tell people that all they want, but they still say 'I don't like horror movies, I don't want to see it'. The people who are hardcore horror fans seem to be let down [by my movies], because they don't deliver what they're accustomed to.”

Anyone going into The Innkeepers can rest assured; the film – about a haunted hotel and the plucky young employee (Sara Paxton) who investigates – delivers genuine scares. But it's the extensive development of its central character and a coherent worldview that helps it hold up outside of its genre. “I had lived at that hotel in real life, and I was just really inspired by that as a place to make a movie”, he says of the extra-generic impetus behind the film. “There's a weird kind of apathy or existential crisis that comes with being stuck in minimum wage jobs, with no real plan to get out of it. I felt that was a good parallel to what it feels like being a ghost stuck in a limbo-y world. I wanted to make a movie about the charms and the faults of minimum wage jobs and thought this would make a good ghost story.”

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Evidently, West believes in the potential of the genre as a platform for personal expression, citing Kubrick and Polanski as salient examples. “The best horror movies that have ever been made – The Shining, Rosemary's Baby – they're all by auteur directors who've made the best in the genre, and it's because they brought more to it than just the surface level stuff.”

Though West has a few projects on the horizon, he remains realistic about his lone wolf status, too – that he can accurately describe his working method as 'esoteric', whilst a similar approach was a recipe for box office gold in another era, can only be the sign of a sad paradigm shift. “Either I've gotta get comfortable with not making bigger movies, and taking a long time to make these small movies, or I need to adjust for their system.”

The Innkeepers is screening at Cinema Nova, Melbourne and Chauvel Cinema, Sydney (Friday nights in June only for Chauvel)