A version of this article appeared in The Age, May 26, 2012.
Growing up in 1980s Delaware, Ti West thought of horror as something that lurked in the corner of the video shop. “It was like one step above the porn, where you weren't supposed to be,” he remembers. “You'd go and look at all the VHS box covers and just think 'Man, I don't know if I could even handle watching these movies.'”
Back then, West says, he never imagined himself making horror movies of his own – or movies of any kind. As a teenager he played in a punk band; only after it broke up did he turn his attention to cinema. His micro-budget first feature The Roost (2005) was made with the support of the independent horror director Larry Fessenden, who has also produced such “art” films as Wendy and Lucy (2008).
On the phone from the US, West comess across as a smart, energetic guy, with plenty of opinions and no qualms about sharing them. His brash self-presentation makes an intriguing contrast with the unassuming craft of his movies, which elevate standard horror themes through deliberate pacing, a nuanced sense of character and a distinctive use of wide shots. With the 1980s period piece House of the Devil (2009), West gained a reputation as an artfully “retro” director, bent on imitating the generic styles of yesteryear. But he insists this isn't intentional: “Current trends are just very different to my tastes.”
While horror filmmakers are a notoriously eccentric breed, West seems more upbeat than most. “Charming” is a word he repeatedly uses, applying it to the supposedly haunted Yankee Pedlar Inn in Connecticut, which served as home base for the cast and crew of House of the Devil. For West, there was something intangibly odd about the place, with its “weird mixture of 1800s historic architecture and bad '70s renovation.”
The stay inspired his follow-up, The Innkeepers, shot on location at the Pedlar Inn itself. “Even the people who work there wear the same shirts that they do in the movie,” he says. One of the main characters, Luke (Pat Healy) was partly based on a real-life desk clerk who ran a ghost-hunting website. “But their personalities are very different.”
West was charmed, too, by Sara Paxton, whose performance as Claire, the heroine of The Innkeepers, reveals an unexpected flair for physical comedy. “When I met her, she was like this weird, awkward goofball, and I really didn't see that coming,” he says. Again, he strove to bring an element of real life into the fiction: “I'm not saying she's the same as the character in the movie, but the character in the movie is way closer to who she is than anyone else she's ever played.”
At heart, The Innkeepers is a traditional ghost story, with a traditional kind of ambiguity. As exhaustion sets in during night shift, Luke and Claire struggle to separate reality and fantasy; West says he wanted to “take that idea of perception into the filmmaking style,” keeping the audience guessing as well.
Unavoidably, the tracking shots down spooky corridors recall Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (1980), which West cites as the first horror movie that truly scared him as a youngster. But he drew equal inspiration from his personal experience of working in the service industry and bonding with colleagues. “It's a strange, insulated, bizarre version of your life,” he says. The relationship between Luke and Claire has an artificial, circumstantial quality: “Like, while they're at work for eight hours they're friends, but they're not outside of that.”
For West, it's a subject close to home. “I've sold jeans, I've sold shoes at a sporting goods store, I've been a busboy, I've been a short-order cook, I've mowed lawns, I've worked at a video store. Anything that's like the minimum-wage job where you don't have any special skills...if this movie thing doesn't work out, that's what I go back to.”
Still in his early thirties, West has directed five features in well under a decade, but they haven't all gone smoothly. A relatively mainstream job for hire, Cabin Fever 2 (2009), was taken out of his hands and barely saw a theatrical release. Since then, he's returned to working with lower budgets, with Fessenden as a producer. “So in a way I'm sort of succeeding backwards,” he says. “I don't have anything left to say in a $800,000 horror movie...I'm tapped out on any ideas that I would want to spend a year of my life working on.”
Right now, his next step is unclear. “Probably as many movies as I've made, I've written other ones that are bigger-budget movies, and I've been unable to get a single one of them made.” Current projects include a science-fiction film to star Liv Tyler (“It's slowly creeping along”) and Bedbugs, an adaptation of a horror novel, which he's been hired to script but may not direct.
Though West says it's hard for him to fit in with Hollywood expectations, he doesn't hold the studios to blame. “When they make a derivative found-footage rip-off movie that's just like the last one that came out, they do it because it's cheap and it's easy and it's not a big risk for them.”
As it happens, he has recently completed a “found footage” film of his own – a contribution to the horror anthology V/H/S, which premiered at Sundance this year. “My thing with found-footage is that it's just a technique to make a movie,” he says. “In terms of the artform of filmmaking, something like Blair Witch or Paranormal Activity used it as a gimmick and they used it very well.”
Still, he personally prefers doing things the old-fashioned way. “Part of my love for cinema comes from the traditional aesthetic of framing and blocking and composition being relevant to a story, and being part of the filmmaking experience.”