Written and Directed by: Ti West
Starring: Sara Paxton, Pat Healy and Kelly McGillis
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Some guests never check out.
If you look at something long enough and know that something scary is coming, the suspense generally works; for example, those internet videos that inevitably end with horrible image shrieking up in your face--it’s not so much the jump that gets you. Instead, it’s the unconscious tension you feel before the shriek that makes it work. Ti West has apparently aimed to make entire movies out of this concept, and it paid off his 2009 chiller, The House of the Devil. He’s up to the same thing in his latest film, The Innkeepers, which trades in a house for an entire hotel, but the methodology is very much the same: take some characters, plop them down into an obviously spooky situation, and keep most of the scares in the basement until the final act.
The title characters are Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy), who are like the last two soldiers left at a fallen outpost. Charged with tending to the Yankee Pedlar Inn during its last weekend of operation, they’re determined to also uncover definitive evidence of the spirit that supposedly haunts the place. As the story goes, Madeline O’Malley checked in on her wedding night before checking herself out--permanently. While the last few guests trickle into the hotel, Claire especially creeps around the old place in hopes of making contact with Madeline.
We rove right along with her as West’s camera winds, wends, and crawls through this worn-in old place. I love that the Pedlar isn’t some ramshackle place that’s on the verge of being condemned; instead, it looks just vintage enough to be haunted by something. Like House of the Devil, The Innkeepers is well furnished in this respect--it’s a very nice film to look at, as West again employs low, natural lighting, and a meticulous, measured approach that allows the film to amble along unhurriedly. Making an effective film of this nature is difficult--if one were to say that not much happens in The Innkeepers (or The House of the Devil), it’d be hard to argue against that. Instead, West operates on the principle that audiences should feel that something is imminent--he’s always sort of in the background, subtly building this world and these characters to eventually drive them to something sinister.
West again has some interesting subjects; like Jocelin Donahue before her, Sara Paxton has a certain magnetism and charm that make her compulsively watchable. The script paints her with just enough strokes to provide some characterization--she’s got some listless twentysomething anxieties going for her--and Paxton does the rest. Unlike Donahue, she’s allowed to interact with others for most of the film; most of her rapport comes with Healy, and the two have the type of chemistry necessary to carry the film. Since we’re dropped in with a bare minimum of introduction for these two, it’s important that they have that “lived-in” quality, and it takes all of a couple of minutes to figure out the dynamic between them. They’re completely platonic, easygoing, and comfortable around each other, and watching them bounce their banter back and forth brings warmth and humor to substitute for the lack of overt scares in the early-going.
The scares eventually show up--slowly, of course. West enjoyably structures and tiers the lurking horror through the sparse batch of guests that check into the hotel; a young boy (Jake Ryan) serves as the audience for Claire’s retelling of the Madeline O’Malley lore before Kelly McGinnis shows up as a washed-up actress who might be guarding some secrets. Finally, an old man (George Riddle) seeking nostalgia portentously requests the honeymoon suite. Meanwhile, Claire keeps poking around every little corner of the hotel, and she gradually begins to find what she’s looking for. That West can expertly craft a solid haunted house movie is evident at this point; hell, House of the Devil felt very much like one, and it didn’t even involve ghosts.
The Innkeepers, however, definitely does, and while I wouldn’t anoint it a classic in the haunted house genre, it’s certainly inspired by a classical style; though it’s still obviously very minimalist, think of it as a slightly more ornate answer to the likes of Paranormal Activity. Whereas those films derive their horror from their cinema verite approach, The Innkeepers is more stylistically effective; it’s a very painterly film that carefully arranges its moving parts before finally unloosing a panic-attack climax on its viewers. The film’s ability to mix that classic structure with a modern sensibility is particularly admirable; it subtly reminds me of the chilly atmospherics of Ghost Story with its vintage, New England vibe. The Yankee Pedlar feels like a forgotten corner in a hole-in-the-wall, and its story within is one you’ve heard before, but West tells it with his own unique voice.
One can ague that if West’s films burned any more slowly, you’d need to have a matchbook handy to reignite them from time to time. They’re relaxed little micro-horrors that simmer to a nice boil, and The Innkeepers provides more in the way of overt, horrific imagery than House of the Devil; it’s still by no means a gorefest, but West goes one step further in terms of providing a more satisfying payoff. The Innkeepers also nicely oscillates between both ends of the decibel scale, quite literally; not only does it go quiet-loud in terms of content, but the precise sound-design reflects it. As such, the DVD from Dark Sky even comes with the insistence that one plays the disc at a high volume for optimal effect, and for good reason: you only need to spend a few minutes with the 5.1 track to discover how intricate and immersive it is, as it consistently tosses sounds around the room. The anamorphic widescreen transfer is similarly crisp and very film-like to preserve the look of its 35mm origins. A behind-the-scenes look and trailer represent the only video special features, but the disc also contains two fully-loaded commentaries, with the first track featuring West, producers Peter Phok and Larry Fessenden, plus second unit director and sound designer Graham Reznick, while the second track features West, Paxton, and Healy. If I had seen The Innkeepers last year, it would certainly have ranked among my favorite horror films of 2011 since it’s a nice, low-key, old-fashioned ghost story, and we could use more of those. Buy it!
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