Director/Screenwriter/Editor: Ti West
By Roderick Heath
Revivalism is always a contentious practice in any art form, inviting charges of slavish nostalgia and unoriginality, but it’s also often a signifier of a form trying to reinvent itself and a rejection by younger artists of dominant, but oppressive and depleted models, a way of looking forward by looking back. That’s as true in cinema, though often more piecemeal because of the difficulties of film production, as it is in pop music or painting. In the case of a recent strand of revivalist-tinged horror cinema, it’s easy to see the roots of the movement: the horror film has been in a crisis, it seems, for most of my lifetime. That crisis has been ever-present, even though, or in large part because horror is a genre with a powerful commercial worth, whilst remaining doggedly verboten in the minds of many filmgoers and cultural watchdogs: many a box office list of recent years has proven what utter garbage can still lure fright and gore fans into the multiplexes. Horror proves over and over that it’s sourced in an essential ethic, one that can only be domesticated so far. The genre has seen a variety of pretenders march its halls. The much-hyped waves of Torture Porn, J-Horror and Euro Extreme yielded one or two strong films and a slew of infinitely lesser fare. Fortunately, just lately, there have been distinct signs of a sea change in the genre from the independent film scenes of Great Britain and the U.S.: indeed, whereas indie cinema has for a long time prided itself on distinction from low-budget genre cinema, a crossbreeding of the two seems to be nascent, allowing adventurous young filmmakers to reject the tired reflexes of the slasher movie, endless lousy remakes, and pure stomach-churning nastiness, and channel other models.
Ti West’s films are particularly engaging in this regard, because they represent a melding of the immersed sensibilities of a young genre fan with the anti-generic rhythms of independent film so confidently that he erases the disparity as if it was never there. The House of the Devil, for instance, immediately declares its indie cred with the mischievous touch of casting Greta Gerwig in the type of part often filled by Nancy Loomis or Belinda Balaski back when. West, who began to gain attention with two ultra-low-budget features, The Roost (2005) and Trigger Man (2007), before an ill-fated stab at becoming Eli Roth’s anointed successor with Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever (2009), is suddenly the genre It Boy, and for once, the attention is for very good reasons. West’s already-signature slow-burn narratives have one foot distinctly planted in post-mumblecore realist cinema, with an emphasis on characterisation through suggestion and an almost discursive sense of narrative construction, and one foot in a classic gothic genre sensibility where a prevalence of a mood of evolving credulity, a sense of precise timing, and a slow rhythmic build-up, is of paramount importance. This mood is directly opposed to the instant gratification sensibility ushered in by the likes of Friday the 13th (1980). West extends that into the raison d’etre of his works, invoking no less a figure than Andrei Tarkovsky in the way he insists, like the Russian titan, that the surest way to build tension is to force the audience to wait. Thus in many ways West betrays the legacy of the ’70s and ’80s genre cinema he clearly loves as much as he celebrates it, because such patience and such wilful resistance to cheapjack stunts was rarely exhibited by such models.
The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers are, in their fashion, extremely simple movies, employing spare settings and casts, and moving to deceptive beats of storytelling, at least until they hit their crisis moments, closer to ambient techno than blaring rock. The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers are linked not only by aesthetic design but by the circumstances of their production: West was inspired to make the second film whilst making the first, during which he and his crew stayed in a hotel with a reputation for being haunted. Most consequentially, they’re conjoined by their human focus, and a distinctive quality of generational biography, skewed a little, but hardly unrecognisably by the ’80s setting of The House of the Devil, and emerging more fully in the context of employment anxiety and the disintegrating faiths and decaying institutions in The Innkeepers.
Both films follow comely, young, but hapless and semi-alienated heroines. The Innkeepers’ Claire (Sara Paxton) is spiritual kin to House’s Samantha (Jocelin Donahue), whilst moving in focus from college into the big, wide world, a world ironically defined by constantly narrowing environs to match their narrowing options. Samantha is more introverted than the kookier, talkative Claire, but each is linked by a flailing lack of direction and both seem clearly cut off from any reliable sense of refuge with, or support by, family, or more than one or two immediate friends. Samantha’s course in The House of the Devil leads her inexorably to the titular abode; Claire’s choices similarly see her unable to avoid the basement she’s explicitly warned not to venture into in the hotel that had become her home and, to a certain extent, refuge from life. If in a subtler, less transparently hip fashion, West’s cinema is nonetheless as attuned to the mindset of the moment as John Carpenter’s was in the hairy, feckless, oppressed atmosphere of Dark Star (1974): like Carpenter’s heroes in that film, the experiences of West’s heroines illustrate immediate realities through the prisms of the fantastic. In both The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers, financial anxiety is a keynote, and a subtler but pervasive air of anomie and abandonment.
The early scenes of The House of the Devil depict Samantha eddying in a time between times, preparing to move out of her college dormitory into a rented house, negotiating with a kindly prospective landlady (Dee Wallace), and getting a deal that will allow her to make a quick and relatively cheap leap into living by herself. She has good reasons to do so: her room back at the dorm is perpetually used by her roommate (Heather Robb) to copulate with random men, and the college is a dull, desolate space through which she flits in anxious distraction. West is suggestive but not declarative about the nature of Samantha’s background and present state of isolation, but she evokes such marked heroes of the genre as the eponymous mother of Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Sgt. Howie of The Wicker Man (1972), defined by her subliminal distinction from her surrounds, retreating to the bathroom to weep in private, sprawling on steps to wait for a prospective employer, zoning out in music.
The prospective employer is named Ulman, and has placed ads for a babysitter around the campus: the moment Tom Noonan’s voice emerges from the other end of the telephone, you know whoever’s answering this ad is screwed. Fate is given an accidental nudge along when Samantha’s solitary gal pal Megan (Gerwig) takes offence on her behalf after Ulman fails to show for the appointed meeting, and rips down all of his ads, leaving Samantha as the sole alternative when another candidate backs out at the last minute. When Samantha finally gets to Ulman’s impressive old pile of a house located (natch) deep in the woods, the list of complications gets increasingly more daunting, including the fact that she’s supposed to actually sit for Ulman’s wife’s mother, an elderly shut-in, and Ulman is willing to pay an absurd amount for a few hours’ work. Mary Woronov, the darkly vulpine star of ’80s flicks like Nomads (1986), is Ulman’s fur-draped wife, who probes with disquieting effect into Samantha’s personal life and circumstances.
Just as Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive directly evoked older films with its credit sequence, so, too, does The House of the Devil, projecting large yellow titles over an ’80s pop-scored reverie of Samantha (the music is actually on her ever-present Walkman) whilst strolling through autumnal suburbs back to the college. As in Refn’s film, such touches both announce the film’s programme, but also miscues those quick to assume what’s following is mere pastiche. The House of the Devil is quite a radical piece of narrative cinema in its quiet way, especially by modern standards, in taking its time to quietly condition the audience and its heroine, to the point where an inevitable eruption of chaos will come as a virtual relief from the tension—and one thing West does superlatively well is build tension. The bleary casualness of Samantha’s scenes with the gauchely agreeable Megan, even when driving her into the deep dark woods, is delectable for the mood of everyday camaraderie blended with irritation and mutual indulgence of failings. For the most part, West seeks to justify his long intake of breath with undercurrents rather than declarations: only when Megan, after dropping off her friend and leaving in a huff at Samantha’s willingness to place herself in such an odd situation for the sake of rent money and then pulls over for a cigarette in a nearby cemetery, does the lurking threat finally resolve. A helpful young man (AJ Bowen), actually the son of Samantha’s intriguing employers, steps up to the car and gives Megan a light, but the instant he realises that she is not the prospective babysitter, pulls out a pistol and shoots her in the face.
Both The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers are structured around buildings, and the elusive sensation of isolation and paranoia that can define being alone in large supposedly empty spaces, a mood West ties ineffably to the unease of his protagonists within their own skin. Throughout the second half of House, there are shots peering in at Samantha through windows, a specimen of study, whilst she in turn explores a space that offers constant mystery and suggestion; only the privileged audience is allowed to understand, as West will seemingly casually give viewers a glimpse beyond a door that has foiled his heroine, to find bodies strewn in bloodied carnage. Such gambits relieve the almost purified pressure of the anxious unknown which defines the way The House of the Devil’s narrative works.
If The Innkeepers is slightly more prosaic in its style, with much more dialogue, more defined generic situations, and a few nods to traditional horror movie tricks, it’s also slightly more mature. The dynamic between Samantha and Megan is reconfigured into Claire’s slacker-hued companionship with Luke (Pat Healy), a slightly older he-nerd and fellow college dropout who’s further along in the process of cultivating disengaged contempt for the real world, spending his days surfing internet porn and building a web page to showcase the supposed sepulchral delights of the hotel they work in. The hotel, the Yankee Pedlar Inn, is a virtually empty Edwardian pile about to be closed down. The boss has skipped out to holiday in a tropical paradise, and the young duo is left as a live-in skeleton staff over a long weekend. It’s the sort of job that could be a godsend to the creatively self-involved, but the anxiety provoked by the job’s imminent demise, the immersive constancy of it, and the lack of any other purpose in their lives, makes the mysteries swirling within the building’s aged bricks and timbers a trap that works a perfect spell on Claire. The hotel is supposedly haunted by Madeline O’Malley, a lovelorn suicide who, it is said, can still be glimpsed wandering the halls. Luke claims to have seen her, though he’s caught no more substantial evidence so far than a video shot of a room door closing spontaneously, and he and Claire salve their boredom by engaging in a part-time ghost hunt.
Claire’s fraying capacity to survive in the outside world is brought out in an early scene, the only one where she leaves the immediate surrounds of the hotel to visit a neighbouring café, only to flee swiftly at a barrage of whining by the barista (Lena Dunham, herself an indie filmmaker). She withers under the anxious contempt of a woman (Alison Bartlett) who’s staying in the hotel with her son (Jake Schlueter), who proves less than an ideal audience for Claire’s ghost stories. An encounter with a childhood hero, former actress Leanne Rease-Jones (Kelly McGillis), who, tellingly, played a maternal figure in an ’80s TV show Claire once adored, proves equally discouraging. Leanne supposedly comes to stay at the hotel for a fan convention, but it’s actually a gathering connected to her new occupation as a new-age therapist and psychic, and Leanne’s sozzled prickliness is sometimes mitigated by a more friendly demeanour as she willingly uses crystals to try to commune with the hotel’s spirits. Her contributions to the ghost hunt are vague at best in her bad tidings and warnings to stay out of the basement. Claire, left on a solitary nighttime vigil with a sensitive microphone provided by Luke as part of the hunt, seems to hear traces of far-off piano music, and tracking it to the piano in the lobby, she witnesses one key struck with melodramatic impetus, scaring the hell out of her, but also seeming to announce that the haunting isn’t just the hotel’s emptiness getting to them. And yet, there remains a possibility that Claire’s assailed psyche is fraying.
McGillis’ presence in The Innkeepers, like that of Wallace, Noonan, and Woronov in the earlier film, pays a definite nod to ’80s genre cinema, and utilises the actors’ specific auras and capabilities with intuitive aplomb. Noonan’s capacity to seem both affable and unsettling is expertly employed in his character’s mix of old-world gentlemanliness and desperation to please Samantha enough to get her to stay around. His towering height is utilised in The House of the Devil’s best gag, when Samantha and Megan first meet him, his head cut well out of the frame that comfortably encompasses the two shorter, daunted ladies. McGillis admirably embraces her part as a greying, fatigued, spikily alcoholic old dingbat with élan, her initial patronisation and coldness to Claire transforming a childhood hero into an embodiment of both the alienating schism between art and life and implicitly maternal condemnation and a generational gap. Later, Luke sneaks in a few low blows, figuratively speaking, at Leanne’s drinking and failed career in revenge for her hurting Claire’s feelings, and this bit made me wonder if in some way all our contemporary obsession with the failings of the famous is sourced in similar motives. Either way, West advertises himself through such casting as an heir to Quentin Tarantino’s and Christopher Nolan’s penchant for reviving the careers of faded figures of former cool.
But West is always focused on his central, younger figures, and he gets gems of performances out of Donahue and especially Paxton, whose wrestling match with a garbage bin early in The Innkeepers is a terrific piece of physical comedy that doubles as a furtherance of characterisation, as Claire is easily overwhelmed by inanimate objects, and the sight of Leanne gazing down from her hotel window like a hovering, disapproving owl deepens the moment’s humiliation. There’s a sequence in The House of the Devil where Samantha momentarily wins her war of nerves against both her own depression and her boding surrounds by cutting loose for a moment by listening to music on her headphones and dancing around the place with a kind of footloose energy and innocence that seems definably pre-’90s.
Unlike some obvious precursors like The Haunting’s (1963) Hill House or The Shining’s (1981) grandiose Overlook, The Innkeepers‘ Yankee Pedlar is nominally vintage, but is actually undistinguished in any quality except by age. But in the grand generic tradition, it has become a snare for frustrated dreams and circular lives: as well as the ghost whose backstory carries intimations of despair and abandonment, an aged man (George Riddle) turns up asking for the room his spent his honeymoon in, a room that, like most of the rest of the hotel, has been stripped down and sealed up. Claire and Luke acquiesce to his request, only for Claire to later find he’s committed suicide, the final catalyst for an onrush of terrible visions. Much of The Innkeepers is sustained by the attentive back and forth between Claire and Luke, particularly in an epic movement where the pair escapes ennui by getting drunk and playful, Claire’s flaky forlornness for a moment almost connecting with Luke’s sexual frustration and stymied attraction to his coworker. This tension resolves as Claire suggests descending into the basement to hunt for Madeline, culminating in a intense sequence offering only close-ups of the two actors in the midst of a sea of darkness, and Claire fearfully informing Luke that the wraith is standing right behind him. Luke freaks out and flees the hotel entirely, leaving Claire to try to survive alone. This sequence is enormously pleasurable on several levels—the slow-rising, sustained tension, the precision of characterisation and acting, the cunning use of camera perspective that generates a certainty of the supernatural whilst still never confirming its existence beyond Claire’s point of view.
If West’s otherwise marvellous diptych is hampered by anything, it’s by the relatively stolid conceptualisations of evil and the uncanny once they are actually revealed: the witch-woman (Danielle Noe) who claws her way out of the attic to perform a devilish ritual over Samantha’s trussed form at the climax of The House of the Devil and the mangled ghosts that pursue Claire in The Innkeepers are standard movie ghouls. West hasn’t really yet figured out ways to complicate and explicate deeper edges to his supernatural Macguffins yet. To a certain extent, that appears deliberate. West relishes their cheesy impact as ways of reminding people that he really likes the schlocky side of his films as much as their more ambitious elements. He’s clearly reaching a stage in his career where he might be advised, a la Quentin Tarantino with Jackie Brown (1997) or John Carpenter with The Thing (1982), to tackle an adaptation or a personalised remake that can enrich his lexicon. On the other hand, West displays in both films judiciousness about just what he does explain and depict that evokes the greatest traditions of Western ghost stories, as in the tales of M.R. James. One beauty of this approach is their simultaneous success as psychological narratives and genre fare. The apparently demonic gestation the witch-woman plants in Samantha in The House of the Devil is easily decipherable as the encumbrance of pregnancy putting a final damper on Samantha’s stymied upward mobility, and Claire’s final pursuit and death at the hands of a vengeful Madeline sees her unable to use an escape hatch she herself locked earlier in the film, finally entrapped by her own choices and susceptibilities. Both The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers resolve in genuinely haunting final images, suggesting survival in some form or another entails unknowable menaces.