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The Forgotten Oscars 2013: Our annual celebration of unsung sci-fi, horror, and action films

By MICHAEL NEEL  |  February 27, 2013

Best Director: Ti West for The Innkeepers
Release Date: February 3 (limited)

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown" --H.P. Lovecraft

H.P. Lovecraft was an early-20th-century author who is widely considered the grandfather of the modern horror story, inspiring such writers as Stephen King, Clive Barker, and Ray Bradbury and countless other writers, filmmakers, and artists. Considering how influential he's been, much of Lovecraft's work is surprisingly under the radar  — At the Mountains of Madness and The Call of Cthulhu are probably his most visible — but his biggest contribution to modern horror is the concept that horror you don’t see is much scarier than that you do. In his stories, the monster, alien, or Thing at the Doorstep always lurks just beyond the protagonist’s grasp, waiting to strike, the protagonist knowing that to even see such terror is to risk instant insanity from fright. Lovecraft’s best stories build up this fear over the course of the story, keeping the unseen terror just out of sight where it occasionally makes ominous noises from the shadows or spills fresh blood to remind the protagonist that it is still there, waiting. This makes the inevitable payoff — where the monster is revealed, resulting in death, insanity, or an unexpected twist — that much more satisfying and powerful. It’s the equivalent of the guy getting the girl at the end of a romantic comedy, except in this case the guy gouges out the girl’s eyes, slits her throat, and makes sausage from her intestines. This technique is the foundation of modern horror, and the scariest horror films almost always use it to some degree or another: brief glimpses of the aliens in Signs are much scarier than seeing them up close and personal, and the shark in Jaws, is the scariest when you see hear the music and the sea is calm, because you know that somewhere under the surface the great white is waiting to strike. And this rule is essential for ghost stories.

I’m a sucker for a good ghost story. There’s something about spirits that is inherently creepy: the idea that a piece of a person can survive after death and kill the living is pretty horrifying. Ghosts are the perfect subject matter for Lovecraft’s technique: they can be invisible, anywhere at any time, watching you, waiting to strike.

A ghost story needs a deft touch — if the director of a torture film like Hostel screams in your ear, the teller of a ghost story must whisper. Tone and atmosphere are essential in any horror film, but no more so than in a ghost story, because so much of the effectiveness of the genre lies in what you don’t see (especially since spirits are invisible — duh). TheInnkeepers, about two employees at an inn who look for ghosts during the Inn’s last weekend before it goes out of business, is just full of atmosphere: it was shot at the Yankee Pedlar Inn in small-town Connecticut, a 100-year-old inn whose old wallpaper and creaky doors seem like they’ve seen a lot of patrons come and go...and that not all of them left alive. West uses the location to its full effect, dropping subtle hints of paranormal malevolence from time to time but mostly letting the action play out and letting us agonize as we wait for something creepy to happen. It’s very effective — I was constantly looking in the background of every shot, so even when the characters are simply talking I was nervously looking in the background, waiting for some chair to move, or something subtly otherworldly to happen. As Lovecraft knew, the greatest joy of horror is not simply an axe to the head, but waiting for the axe to meet cranium. The buildup of tension, not knowing when it’s going to happen, delaying the moment of impact — that’s the joy of horror, and if done well will make the audience suffer in delicious anticipation and dread. West achieves this and more in The Innkeepers. Everything — casting, props, the location, score, sound — works together beautifully. A truly scary horror film is very difficult to pull off: since you’re showing so little of the horror and implying so much you need to make sure you get it right. So many things can go wrong: showing too much of the lurking threat too early, not showing enough, bad acting, a dumb plot, a stupid-looking ghost, monster, or killer, and many more things. West pulls everything together in a seamless, quietly effective ghost story that is very re-watchable and much deeper than most films of its ilk. I was thinking about it long after it was over, and remembering certain scenes still makes me shiver. West is an accomplished disciple at the dark church of Lovecraft, and he possesses one hell of a creepy whisper.

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