Director Ti West Talks Slow Horror, 'The Innkeepers'

Feb 4, 2012
Originally published on February 6, 2012 7:42 am

There's a kind of horror movie you don't have to be a horror fan to enjoy: The Shining and Rosemary's Baby are a couple of examples; but The House of the Devil, a film from three years ago, might belong on that list as well.

House, about a seriously unlucky babysitter who reluctantly takes a gig at a shadowy mansion in the middle of nowhere, was directed by 31-year-old Ti West. West is known for making horror movies, and his films stand out: They're slowly paced, with minimal gore and a distinctive look borrowed from classic 1980s fright flicks.

In fact, West set House in the '80s, when the news was filled with real-life prosecutions of allegedly devil-worshipping preschool teachers. West tells NPR's Neda Ulaby that he's just old enough to remember that "Satanic panic."

"I'm an only child, and I'm a bit of a weirdo — I really kind of absorbed everything around me," West says. "So I do absolutely remember my mother saying, 'You can't go to the park because a van will come along and pick you up and [people will] sacrifice you to the devil.' And she believed it."

House established West as a masterful mimic of '80s horror, from the rotary phones to the credits' font. But West dislikes being pegged as the vintage-horror guy.

"Everyone said it was an homage to the '80s, and really I was making an '80s period piece," West says.

That might be a little disingenuous, says Adam Hart, a film scholar who studies horror.

"There's a loving fetishization of clothing and hairstyles [in the film]," Hart says. "I don't think I've seen a Walkman play such a prominent role in any film ever."

The babysitter, having taken the job, is alone in the house. She dances on the furniture, pokes through jumbled drawers, peeks into dark closets and explores room after ominous room.

"Every time she walks into a room, you think, 'Well, this movie is called House of the Devil, so something's gonna pop out at her and kill her,' " says West. Not so, he explains. As the moments stretch on, with nothing happening, something happens for the audience:

"You think, 'It has to happen in this room, because it would be insane to have her go into this room and not have something happen,' " he says. "Then when it doesn't, you kind of have to give up on being ahead of the movie."

Suspense In Slowness, In Life And In Film

West grew up in King of Prussia, Pa. His mother works at a hospital gift shop, and he sold jeans at Diesel while shooting his first feature film.

"I've had every minimum-wage job known to man — and I don't want to go back to minimum-wage jobs, but I have a fondness for that," West says. "So I wanted to make a movie that encapsulated that feeling of being stuck at work, and the apathy that comes with it."

The oppressive suspense of House reflects the tedium of low-wage work and how we pass the time, says Hart.

"It introduces the horrific and the supernatural into everyday rhythms," he says.

In West's new movie, The Innkeepers, he toys with that idea again, even as he explores another favored horror trope — the haunted hotel.

At the Yankee Pedlar Inn, the innkeepers in question aren't the owners but a couple of low-level workers. Claire and Luke, both in their 20s, clean the rooms, answer phones, and pull pranks on each other to stave off the boredom of taking care of the inn and its demanding guests.

The only thing that inspires Claire is searching through the hotel after hours for evidence of a ghost. Since this is a haunted hotel in a horror movie, you could speculate on what happens next. But how it happens may be more surprising.

Larry Fessenden, a respected independent horror director who produced The Innkeepers, says West's slow, deliberate pacing subverts not only the frenzied rhythms of contemporary horror films but the rhythms of contemporary life.

"There's obviously the 'slow food' movement and the 'slow this and that' movement, which is just to say, 'Everyone, take a chill pill,' " Fessenden says. "I feel that, in some way, Ti's doing that in his filmmaking."

Fessenden appreciates what he calls West's observational approach to horror and the craftsmanship he brings to a genre that can often feel cheap or over the top. By probing and prolonging the chills, he says, West is making them more meaningful.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

To a movie director now. Ti West is 31 years old and he has three movies coming out this year. West makes horror movies, slowly paced, with minimal gore and a distinctive look borrowed from classic 1980s fright flicks.

As NPR's Neda Ulaby reports, this could be the year that Ti West finds an audience beyond hardcore genre fans.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: There's a kind of horror movie you don't have to be a horror fan to enjoy. "The Shining," "Rosemary's Baby," and maybe Ti West's breakthrough film from three years ago. "The House of the Devil" is about a seriously unlucky baby sitter who gets a mysterious call.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL")

ULABY: Our heroine finds herself at a shadowy mansion in the middle of nowhere with a sinister older couple. When they tell her she'll be watching an old lady, not a child, her best friend freaks out.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL")

ULABY: "The House of the Devil" is set in the 1980s, when the news was filled with real-life prosecutions of allegedly devil worshipping preschool teachers. Ti West is just old enough to remember satanic panic.

TI WEST: I'm an only child, and I'm a bit of a weirdo, so I really kind of absorbed everything around me. So I do absolutely remember my mom telling me, you can't go down to the park by yourself because a van will come along and kidnap you in sacrifice to the devil. And she believed it.

ULABY: "The House of the Devil" established Ti West as a masterful mimic of 1980s horror, from the rotary phones to the credits' font. But West dislikes being pegged as the vintage horror guy.

WEST: It's one of those things that just everyone said it's this sort of great homage to the '80s, and really I was just making an '80s period piece.

ULABY: That might be a little disingenuous says Adam Hart. He's an academic who studies horror.

ADAM HART: There's a loving fetishization of the clothing and hairstyles.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “ONE THING LEADS TO ANOTHER”)

HART: I don't think I've seen a Walkman play such a prominent role in any film ever.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONE THING LEADS TO ANOTHER")

ULABY: The babysitter, having taken the job is alone in the house.

(SOUNDBITE OF NOISE)

ULABY: She dances on the furniture, pokes through jumbled drawers, peeks into dark closets and explores room after ominous room.

WEST: You know, every time she walks into a room, you think, well, this movie is called "The House of the Devil," so something's going to pop out at her and kill her, and it doesn't happen. And then she goes into another room, and it doesn't happen. And then she goes into another room and you're like well, it's got to happen in this room and then it doesn't. And then she goes into another and then well, it has to happen in this room because it'll be insane to have her go in this room and not have something happen. And then when it doesn't, you kind of have to give up on being ahead of the movie.

ULABY: That oppressive suspense reflects the tedium of low-wage work and how we pass the time, says film scholar Adam Hart.

HART: It introduces the horrific and the supernatural into sort of everyday rhythms.

ULABY: The director grew up in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. His mother works at a hospital gift shop. He sold jeans at Diesel while shooting his first feature film.

WEST: I've had every minimum-wage job known to man. I don't want to go back to minimum-wage jobs, but I have a fondness for that. So I wanted to make a movie that encapsulated that feeling of being sort of stuck at work, and the apathy that comes with it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE INNKEEPERS")

ULABY: In his new movie that just came out, "The Innkeepers," Ti West toys with another favored horror trope – the haunted hotel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE INNKEEPERS")

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ULABY: "The Innkeepers" are not the inn's owners. They're a couple of workers. They clean, answer phones and pull pranks on each other to stave off the boredom of taking care of the inn and its demanding guests.

: (as Claire) Why do you think she sticks around here?

: (as Luke) Beats me. Our rates aren't that cheap. The Courtyard by Marriott out on Route 13 is much better.

: (as Claire) No, not her. I mean Madeline. What do you think she wants?

: (as Luke) I don't know. I don't spend my time trying to figure out what women want, especially dead ones.

: (as Claire) Please.

ULABY: The only thing that inspires Claire is searching through the hotel after hours for evidence of a ghost.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ULABY: It's a haunted hotel. You know how that works out in a horror movie. Larry Fessenden is a respected independent horror director who produced the film. He says Ti West's deliberate, slow pacing subverts not only the frenzied rhythms of contemporary horror films but the rhythms of contemporary life.

LARRY FESSENDEN: There's obviously the slow food movement and the slow this and that movement, which is just to say, everybody, take a chill pill, and get off your iPhones and just sort of take in life again. And then I feel that, in some odd way, Ti's doing that in his filmmaking.

ULABY: Fessenden appreciates what he calls West's observational approach to horror and the craftsmanship he brings to a genre that can be cheap or over the top. By probing and prolonging the chills, he says, he's making them more meaningful. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.