TBTS Reviews: The Innkeepers
These days, it’s a pretty sad state of affairs for the horror genre. If one’s not taking in a standard Asian horror remake or a “re-imagining” of a previously successful American horror film from the late eighties, one seems to be relegated to watching struggling teens have holes bored into their heads by masked maniacs with ghastly drills of some sort. There’s precious little to be found in the way of anything original — the same basic premises and -paint-by-the-numbers scenes pop up again and again. Even when we find something new and interesting, like, say, the first Saw film, it’s then beaten to death by greedy producers intent on squeezing every last cent from our attention to the idea. Eli Roth seemed a bright young star a few years ago with a tiny film like Cabin Fever, which he parlayed into the larger-budget torture-porn forefather Hostel and then, sadly, instead of coming up with anything new, just made Hostel II. Oh well.
Last year, in these very pages, I sung the praises of a film called House of the Devil — a throwback to the “Gothic-mansion-as-front-for-Satanic-Cult” films of the late seventies and early eighties — by a filmmaker named Ti West. While the storyline was decidedly straightforward, it was the mischevious way West orchestrated each moment which really stood out: by cleverly ratcheting up each moment, the film became a study in suspense. It was clear then that West had the chops, and he’s proven it again with his latest The Innkeepers.
Set in New England, The Innkeepers focuses on the last weekend of business operations for the Yankee Pedlar, a historic inn which has fallen on hard times and lost its clientele to larger, newer chain hotels up the road. During these quiet last days of the establishment the front desk is staffed by Claire and Luke, both aimless in their own ways, who are enamored by longtime tales of ghostly activity which has been encountered over the years at the Yankee Pedlar. Now that the joint is closing, they only have a few days left to get definitive proof that there is paranormal activity going on. Armed with cameras and recorders, the plan is to spend the downtime trying to capture what they can before the doors shut forever.
As with House of the Devil, West has taken a fairly simple storyline and differentiated himself from the pack by infusing his film with a great amount of personality; in House of the Devil that personality came from his loving attention to the era, and in The Innkeepers he takes the time to allow us to care about Claire and Luke a great deal before things start taking a turn for the creepier. They’re a couple of slackers — Luke (Pat Healy) cynical and dismissive, the adorable Claire (Sarah Paxton) innocent and wide-eyed — whose interaction itself becomes as much a selling point for the film as the payoff itself. Aloof, wannabe-hipster Luke feeds Claire’s imagination with stories of the inn’s rumored ghosts (and has a bit of an unspoken crush on her), and asthmatic Claire absorbs these stories like a child hearing a spooky campfire tale. Their give-and-take, which feels absolutely real, firmly anchors the film in an endearing, friendly and funny place rather than simply dragging the duo along for victimization in the third act.
Again, West uses the art of suspense to tighten the belt; as the weekend grows later, strange things manifest from a possibly mystical ex-sitcom actress (Kelly McGillis) and a mysterious old man insising upon renting the Honeymoon Suite for the last night. Jump scares are used sparingly, effectively, and sometimes ironically, as if West knows it’s all part of the rules of a game he’s having a great time playing. Even if you might be able to see where certain parts of The Innkeepers might be headed, West never makes the journey anything less than atmospheric and fun to watch, and it’s no spoiler to reveal that the final reel builds to a genuinely scary climax in which — by that point — the viewer is genuinely invested. In the end, The Innkeepers has character alongside its chills — something sorely lacking in its horror contemporaries. Chalk that up to the deftness of West and keep a close eye on this one. He has the knack to smilingly earn your trust just before scaring the pants off you; that’s an admirable and dangerous trait in a director and one of which future filmmakers and West’s contemporaries would be wise to take note.