SXSW 2011: Horror mixes with wit in Ti West's 'The Innkeepers'
Ti West does not believe in ghosts. The 30-year-old writer/director/editor of "The Innkeepers," which will have its world premiere Saturday as part of the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas, considers himself a skeptic when it comes to matters of the supernatural. But while shooting his previous film, the slow-burn satanic horror flick "The House of the Devil," strange things happened at the hotel where the cast and crew were staying. So strange that West ended up writing a script about a haunted hotel.
The Yankee Pedlar Inn in Torrington, Conn., not only provided the inspiration for "The Innkeepers," but West was able to shoot there as well. In the spring of last year, the production more or less took over the establishment for their 17-day shoot. Everyone stayed there again too, this time just popping down to the lobby from their rooms when it was time to work.
"So this movie is really close to what was happening when we weren't shooting 'House of the Devil,' when we were just staying there," West said in an interview this week in Los Angeles, noting that doors would open and close, lights would go on and off and everyone seemed to be having especially strange and vivid dreams.
When "The Innkeepers" plays in Austin on Saturday night at the 1,200-seat Paramount Theater, it will be the biggest single audience one of West's films has played to in the United States. The film goes into SXSW looking for distribution, and its prime timeslot and marquee venue could make it into one of the most buzzed-about screenings of this year's festival.
The story follows two desk clerks (Pat Healy and Sara Paxton) working at a large, lonely, historic hotel on its final weekend of operation before it closes for good. A pair of chatty nerds with clunky headphones, hoodies and at least one inhaler between them, the two like to talk (and joke) about the legend that the hotel is haunted. That is, until slowly they come to believe something really scary is really happening. The film costars Kelly McGillis as an actress who is one of the hotel's only guests and features a cameo by "Tiny Furniture" director Lena Dunham as an over-sharing barista.
Whereas "House of the Devil" methodically built to a climactic psychotic freakout, with "The Innkeepers" West is going for a different tone, blending a droll wit with very genuine scares.
"The thing is, it's not a 'horror comedy' or 'comedy horror.' You wouldn't say that because that's goofier," West said. "It's a horror movie that just has a bunch of humor in it, because the two characters are snarky, witty people.
"For me, the big reason for making the movie was putting people I relate to, people like me, into a mystical ghost story because they don't belong there. People in a ghost story who believe in ghosts are boring. To me it's that they shouldn't be in this ghost movie, so when the ghost stuff happens they are just not equipped to handle it."
West was at SXSW with some of his earlier films, and considers the festival something of a home for his work. Based on strong reviews, word of mouth and its early availability on video on demand, "The House of the Devil" has built itself into one of the more notable cult films of the last few years. West is hoping that "The Innkeepers" will show he has more to offer than just being the creator of moody "slow horror" films. (He cited movies like "Ghostbusters" and "The Frighteners" in comparison.)
"I wasn't trying to make something more mainstream," West added, "but just from the story and the characters it's not about a bummed-out girl in a house alone. I know these two characters at the front desk; people should like them. I wasn't trying to do something I knew people would like as much as I was making a movie that I would like to watch. I was definitely trying to make a more fun movie."
-- Mark Olsen
Photo: Sara Paxton in "The Innkeepers." Credit: Dark Sky Films