Sara Paxton and Pat Healy in "The Innkeepers." (Magnet Releasing )
The films "The Innkeepers," written and directed by Ti West, and "Kill List," directed and co-written by Ben Wheatley, are idiosyncratic takes on the notion of the horror film, made by filmmakers who tell their stories with a mix of suspenseful invention and wicked irreverence. Both open in Los Angeles on Friday and are already available via video-on-demand platforms. And both belong to a new wave of movies emerging from the festival circuit that appeal to both the art-house/cinephile set and hard-core horror fans.
But whatever you do, please don't refer to them as "hipster horror."
"I don't think there is a name for it," said Tim League, founder and chief executive of the Alamo Drafthouse theater chain and creative director of Fantastic Fest, of this new, informal movement. "With movies by people like Ben Wheatley and Ti West, rich storytellers who just happen to deal with dark subject material, I think it's storytelling and moviemaking first, and it just happens to be horror."
"The Innkeepers" premiered last spring at the South by Southwest Film Festival, where "Kill List" also first played as part of a sidebar programmed by Fantastic Fest. Both Austin, Texas-based festivals, SXSW and Fantastic Fest, along with the Midnight Madness section of the Toronto International Film Festival, FrightFest in the UK and the Sitges Film Festival in Spain, are important stops on the international circuit for showcasing films that pair braininess with their bloody fun.
Whatever you choose to call them, these films are landing at a time when more indie titles are becoming available on video-on-demand and low-budget found-footage-style horror movies such as those in the "Paranormal Activity" series or this month's "The Devil Inside" are proving tremendously popular with moviegoers.
Horror films in particular seem to be landing in a sweet spot where they can be successful on VOD, in theaters or both — and with the multi-platform success of his 2009 film "The House of The Devil," West has become one of the biggest names in the emerging new genre movement.
That 1980s-set film, about a broke college student who gets more than she bargained for when she accepts an unusual house-sitting assignment, built off the style of West's earlier features "The Roost" and "Trigger Man," taking a slow-burn approach in which it seems nothing much is happening until the action erupts in a wild finish.
In "The Innkeepers," West adds low-key comedy to the mix, as a pair of clerks at a rundown historic inn (Sara Paxton and Pat Healy) act as lo-tech ghostbusters, trying to figure out if the place is really haunted. In its mix of tones, "The Innkeepers" is often as much a workplace comedy as it is a horror flick.
"I like horror movies, it's my favorite genre," said the Los Angeles-based West. "And I like making my own horror movies. But it's not what I only want to do. So to have a movie like this that has so much comedy in it makes me feel like I'm doing a little more.
"I wanted to make a charming ghost story because I'd never seen that. That was where I was putting the concerted effort. If you watch the movie a second time you don't watch it to see the ghosts pop out again, you watch it to see Sara take out the trash again. These are the details to me as an audience member and as a filmmaker that I care about."
British filmmaker Ben Wheatley's previous effort, "Down Terrace," centered on a father and son small-town gangster duo and combined kitchen-sink family drama with queasy comedy and brash violence. For "Kill List," Wheatley makes even bolder leaps, plunging viewers into a head-spinning, stomach-turning world of domestic tension, assassin's anxiety and finally cult ritual.
In the new film, a former soldier turned contract killer (Neil Maskell) is reluctant to go back to work, but his family's finances have become strained to the point of breaking. He takes a job with a friend (Michael Smiley), but the pair begins to realize something is not right, as if their targets have been selected specifically for them, and they are drawn deeper into a complicated scheme they can't understand and are helpless to stop.
"I want to make films that I would want to see," said Wheatley by phone from his home in Brighton. "I like horror films, and the kind of horror films I want to see aren't being made, so I decided to make one. And to see if the way that we worked on 'Down Terrace,' how that would apply to making a horror film, taking genre elements and treating them in as realistic a way a possible."