A horror movie with no blood, no murders, no weapons, no killers, no monsters, and no computer-generated special effects.
Inconceivable in the age of Saw, Scream, Hostel, and The Human Centipede, no?
Not so for Wilmington filmmaker Ti West, whose latest feature, the tense yet droll haunted-house yarn The Innkeepers, tones down the violence and cranks up the atmosphere, mystery, and angst.
The Innkeepers is one of three films by local directors released on DVD this spring.
Also out are BuzzKill, an absurdist road movie-slash-serial-killer comedy from Wyndmoor native Steven Kampmann, and The Fields, an intense, moving, coming-of-age story about a young boy haunted by images of death written by Easton’s Harrison Smith and codirected by Philly natives and Temple graduates Tom Mattera and David Mazzoni.
West, 31, a graduate of the School of Visual Arts in New York, has over the last six years established himself as one of the leading lights of genre filmmaking with dark, minimalist creepfests such as Trigger Man and The House of the Devil.
Released on DVD and Blu-ray by Dark Sky Films (www.darkskyfilms.com/), The Innkeepers is a meticulously paced, character-driven mystery about two twentysomething hotel clerks stuck on the night shift at a virtually deserted small-town inn during its last days in business.
A self-styled paranormal investigator, Luke (Pat Healy), tries to use his mostly faked ghost-hunter resumé to woo coworker Claire (Sara Paxton), and he persuades her to use their last nights together to find the ghost rumored to have been haunting the inn for decades.
Their oddball relationship, off-the-wall banter, and amateur detective work are interrupted when an embittered, aging actress-turned-psychic (Kelly McGillis) checks in for the night. McGillis’ wicked, sharp-witted performance as the dipsomaniac ghost whisperer is the highlight of the film.
West said he felt blessed to get McGillis, who channeled some of her own experiences as a onetime sex symbol forgotten by many of Hollywood’s young power brokers. "What I realized was that older actresses don’t have a sense of humor about being older," said West. "People would get offended when I told them who they were playing."
West met McGillis on Skype. "She just stared at me [in character] and smoked and blew smoke into the computer camera," he said. "She just had this great self-deprecating sense of humor."
He was similarly surprised and charmed by Paxton’s manner, which belies her beauty queen looks.
"I didn’t want just some blond girl. But when she showed up, she was this awkward, clumsy goofball. ... She was bumping into stuff."
Paxton (Darcy’s Wild Life, Sleepover) said she was having a particularly strange day. "On my way to the meeting my dog barfed on me and I walked in and I was a mess," she said. "I guess ... I’m a George Costanza [type]. Stuff like that is constantly happening to me."
The Innkeepers was shot on location at the Yankee Pedlar Inn in Torrington, Conn., which has a reputation as a haunted site. It’s something West experienced firsthand when he and his cast and crew stayed there two years earlier while shooting The House of the Devil nearby.
"Weird things kept happening there. There would be odd noises, weird flickering lights," West said. "There’s not much going on in town and the place has this reputation, so it’s the beacon for the town."
Too "stressed out" to take notice of the hotel the first time, West said he decided to return when he came up with a new story idea.
"I’ve wanted to make a movie about minimum-wage workers," he said, "and I thought it would make a good ghost story if we made it where we had stayed."
So, it’s basically Kevin Smith’s Clerks meets The Haunting?
"I don’t know how to do anything, any profession," West said. "I have had every minimum-wage job in the world. You are stuck in those jobs and there is a hopelessness and you feel lost and apathetic."
If slow dread — and slacker humor — permeate The Innkeepers, BuzzKill, which was written and codirected by and stars Kampmann, is propelled by absurdist humor. Made on the same budget — $800,000 — it’s a road movie about a screenwriter named Ray (Daniel Raymont) so intent on not "selling out" to Hollywood, he can’t get his masterpiece, Great Shame, made. It’s just too depressing, producers tell him.
His luck changes when a big-name celebrity champions his script. Never mind that the celeb, played with aplomb by former Saturday Night Live cast member Darrell Hammond, owes his fame to his headline-making activities as the Karaoke Killer, a serial murderer who targets karaoke singers.
"That’s pretty much what I want to do when I see someone doing karaoke," said Kampmann, an alumnus of the University of Pennsylvania and Chicago’s Second City troupe.
When the killer steals Ray’s car, the writer follows him across the country to the promised land ... Hollywood.
Kampmann’s film, out on DVD from Indican Pictures (www.indicanpictures.com/), features fellow troupe members Lance Kinsey and Audrie Neenan and also includes voice parts by Richard Kind, Martin Short, and Andrea Martin. Its Second City credentials led the troupe to market it as "Second City’s BuzzKill," making it the first picture to bear the name of the legendary improv comedy group since 1969’s The Monitors.
Kampmann, who turns 65 Thursday, said one of his biggest challenges was to make a film about a cross-continental road trip on a shoestring budget. "We used parts of New Jersey to stand in for the country," said Kampmann. "It’s an amazing state, it has a lot more than people realize."
He flew out to Los Angeles for a one-day shoot to cover the California desert scenes. "I realized I can’t sell the desert in the New Jersey Pine Barrens."
BuzzKill’s satirical attack on celebrity culture and the Hollywood machine was inspired by Kampmann’s own experience. Great Shame, the script Ray can’t sell to the studios, is actually one of Kampmann’s unmade screenplays. "Actually, I just finished the final draft after working on it for 14 years," said Kampmann, who is perhaps best known for writing 1988’s Stealing Home, a drama set in Philly about a washed-up baseball player who is haunted by the death of his father when he was a young boy.
"It was a very personal film," said Kampmann. "It was based on my father, who died in a car crash while crossing the Walt Whitman Bridge in 1963."
Kampmann, whose sister still lives in Germantown, is serious about his hometown, especially its baseball franchise: He said he raised his three sons as Phillies fans and every one of his movies has characters and place names based on the names of great Phillies players.
Kampmann, who had left a budding career as a therapist to become an actor and filmmaker, said he eventually tired of the Hollywood grind and in 2000 moved back east when he and his wife, Judith, were offered teaching positions at Blair Academy, a prep school in Warren County. N.J.
"People in Hollywood thought I was nuts when I left," said Kampmann, who recently retired. "When I was teaching and my kids were at the same school where I was teaching, I felt I had real purpose. I was really happy."
His next move? Try to get Great Shame made with an A-list cast and matching, multimillion-dollar budget, even though he admits every time "you get back to the show-business thing, you realize how absolutely frustrating it is."
Kampmann’s faith in personal stories is shared by fledgling screenwriter Harrison Smith, an Easton native whose debut feature, The Fields, released on DVD and Blu-ray by Breaking Glass Pictures (www.breakingglasspictures.com/), is an autobiographical drama set in 1973 about a 9-year-old boy’s first taste of human mortality. When his parents’ frequent arguments turn violent, Steven (Joshua Ormond) is sent to live on his grandparents’ isolated farm, where he becomes obsessed with a nearby cornfield and the imagined monsters who live there. His death fixation isn’t hard to understand: His grandmother Gladys (Cloris Leachman) talks about nothing but dying. "Cloris is exactly how my grandmother was," said Smith. "She was always obsessed with death — that was her way."
Smith, 44, added that "she knew if I got lost into that corn they would never find me in there. Her answer was to scare me to death so I would stay out."
Smith said his grandmother compounded things by inviting him to watch horror films with her on TV. Before long, he said, he also became obsessed with Charles Manson, whose trial was extensively covered on the news.
The film, which closely follows Smith’s real-life recollections, becomes increasingly disturbing when an unseen person or group of people begin stalking the young boy and his grandparents. "One night, I could hear someone breathing through my bedroom window," said Smith. "It was this heavy exhaling noise. I was about 7 and I just went nuts and I just screamed."
Smith said the pestering escalated into a full assault on the house. One night, the attackers cut the family’s phone and power lines. Huddled with his grandparents, Smith could see figures darting in and out of the cornfield to throw rocks through the windows.
One day, it just stopped. Not long after, a teenage farmhand from the next property committed suicide, said Smith.
Was he the perp? "We never saw them," said Smith. "We never found out who they were."
Smith, who lives in Stroudsburg with his wife of 16 years, Brandi, a federal agent ("I can’t disclose which agency she’s with"), said his screenplay attracted a few major players in Hollywood. "But they all wanted to make it into a horror movie, a slasher," he said. "You know, something like Children of the Corn Part 12."
Added Smith, That’s not the movie I wanted to make. I wanted to make a Valentine to my grandparents.”