West's World: Ti West on The Innkeepers
“They’re always trying to outsmart you, so I feel that I have to put an effort in to outsmart them first, so we can get on a level playing field again.” He is Ti West, the 32-year-old horror director whose new film, The Innkeepers, hits cinemas this month. ‘They’ are the horror aficionados, and here he is toying with an audience both educated and fanatical, who scan the horizon of expectation with accuracy and vigour. In short, horror fans know their shit. “People become so hip and postmodern to horror movie techniques...so many movies now wink at the audience so much or do the same derivative things over and over again that most audiences know what’s going to happen way before it does.” West has been keen throughout his filmmaking career to subvert these genre norms while many others seem content to churn out the same tropes of gratuitous gore for a morally numbed audience. It would seem that you can in fact get blood from a stone, if of course you’re willing to smash somebody’s brains in with it.
Ah, brains; that matter so liberally sprayed onto the horror lens yet now so rarely evident behind it. This is no truism where The Innkeepers or West’s earlier House of the Devil (2009) are concerned. As a director he is untroubled by including scenes of outright horror and depravity, but is equally unafraid to make the audience wait for it. This is a brave tactic and one which has earned him both plaudits and derision. It is far more disturbing to watch the torments of a friend over a stranger, so this slow burn character development pays obvious dividends. “To me it’s like, well you gotta spend time with them to care about them, so you gotta spend time before it’s scary.” And spend time we do, especially with lead Sara Paxton, who delivers a warm, goofy and humane performance before a sharp descent into peril. Her awkward humour is engaging and deliberate (for all its monsters, horror’s true bête noir must be uninvited chuckles). With this strong female character West avoids the bloody misogyny in vogue within a certain strand of modern horror. In Hostel 2 (depending upon your tastes, the pinnacle or nadir of this trend) director Eli Roth overstepped metaphor and literally hung a naked girl upside down from a hook. Fresh meat to be ogled then butchered.
The Innkeeper’s motives are very different. When executed well, horror writes a devastating social commentary. For parents in the 1960s, The Exorcist’s scenes of demonic possession held a horrific mirror to their own kid’s mutation into longhaired dope-smoking slackers. West’s own dreaded reflection is the coma reality of dead-end jobs. The Innkeepers premise has two staff on duty at a rundown hotel, which itself awaits a date with death, this being its final weekend of business. Their paranormal investigations into the Inn’s dark past are a rare escape from the actuality that they and it are going nowhere. “Most of what was influencing me to make the movie was what it’s like having a part-time job and having not a lot of aspirations or abilities to go beyond that...to me a good juxtaposition for a ghost story was being stuck in the jobs just as the ghosts were stuck.”
He tells me that subtlety suits his tastes, but “I’m interested in making the most outrageously graphic, disgusting horror movie ever, I’ve just never had the money to do it properly.” Paddling in shallow budget pools has restricted his storytelling but also provided a certain freedom in decision making – something he lost when signing on to direct Cabin Fever 2. The film was cut against his wishes, causing him to disown the project and request the fictional Alan Smithee moniker take his place in the end credits. For those who argue that it’s still his film he retorts, “it’s like Seinfeld telling Dane Cook jokes. The material might be OK, but the delivery is all fucking weird and messed up.” But he is admittedly an aspirational director with larger works in mind, and to play with Hollywood’s bigger boys involves the negotiation of control. Is this something he could accept? “I’d be happy to give up control in exchange for a really cool house with a pool. Until somebody offers me that I’m going to keep doing things my way.”