Claire (Sara Paxton), a 20-something desk clerk at an old New England inn, decides to investigate whether the hotel is haunted in director Ti West's latest film, The Innkeepers.
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."
Ti West, director of The Innkeepers
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.
Low-wage desk-clerks Claire and Luke (Pat Healy) break up the monotony by hunting for the ghost of a woman rumored to have died in the 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.