Early in “The Innkeepers,” the new film by independent horror director Ti West, the heroine Claire (Sara Paxton) wanders into an empty hotel, hunting for a ghost.
From the buzzy static of her recording equipment comes an eerie piano melody, but when Claire removes the headphones, she discovers that the mic is recording something that’s not actually there. Something is in the hotel with her, but only her equipment can pick up the evidence.
What makes the scene so effective is the contrast between the music Claire hears and the deadly silence in the hotel, which reveals some unknowable presence just beyond the range of human perception.
“That scene was one of the major set pieces in the movie,” says the Delaware-born director. “I’ve worked with the same sound designer on every movie, Graham
Reznick. I’ve known him since I was 5. When he first showed me the cut of that scene — when she takes off her headphones and the sound goes away — it was a great, high-five moment.”
Claire’s hallway odyssey may end with a jump-out-of-your-seat scare that you just know is coming, but it works because of its emphasis on slow-burn suspense over quick cuts and gratuitous gore. “The Innkeepers,” which opens Friday at West End Cinema, is only West’s fifth feature film (fourth, if you discount the sequel to Eli Roth’s 2002 flick “Cabin Fever” that he disowned after studio meddling), but he’s already made his mark on the horror industry.
In a genre filled with remakes and found-footage novelties, West has been hailed as one of horror’s most inventive and intriguing new voices, even though he admits that his cinematic style might strike some viewers as “old-fashioned.”
Veering away from the genre’s stock characters and jarring jump cuts, West favors long takes, judicious editing and relatable characters who don’t exist solely to violently die — characters like Claire and her ghost-hunting pal.
It’s all in the service of making the paranormal seem normal, more realistic and more urgent.
“I don’t go to horror movies to see people’s heads get cut off,” West says. “Maybe some people do, but that’s not why I got into horror. I don’t go to movies for escapism, so I don’t make movies for escapism.”West End Cinema, 2301 M St. NW; opens Friday, $8-$11; 202-419-3456. (Foggy Bottom)