There is a scene, perhaps midway through Ti West’s most recent film of spooky interiors and patient tracking-shots, where an underpaid employee struggles to get a bag of garbage in to the rear alley bin. It is as good of a touchstone for what he has been managed thus far with his career, going against the grain of mainstream horror trends (torture, found footage, etc.) by making more patient, measured films which rely exclusively on atmosphere and tension. Making a horror film in this day and age that eschews gimmickry and/or mounds of bad CGI (and worse dialogue) while actually getting it out into the marketplace is a herculean task in and of itself. Alas, for all the chatter (and wonderful key art) posted on the internet about The House of the Devil, the film is only a success within the select niche of genre aficionados. Notwithstanding some very minor issues with its digitally-flat (and rather abrupt) ending, it is one of the great horror pictures of the past 10 years. I have little reservation in calling it a master-work in terms of generating both tension and anticipation, which when you boil things down is damn near everything in the horror genre. Yet, suspense seems seems to be dying off with each new re-invention of horror-formula with only a few notable exceptions.
Back to the bag of garbage.
The employee is Claire and she is one of only two remaining staff serving a meagre three guests living at the The Yankee Pedlar Inn until the business shutters at the end of the week. The bag is leaking some sort of fluid as she drags it haltingly across the uneven cracked asphalt. She makes several Sisyphean attempts to heave the hulking sack into the bin whose lid seems close just a millisecond too soon. The whole scene plays out as a charming bit of physical comedy, a levity that rests purely on the comic timing and chummy vibe of Ms. Sara Paxton which, more than a bit, reminds me of Anna Faris’ endearing goofiness in Smiley Face. And so goes The Innkeepers, a haunted hotel story that trafficks in the gentle, snarky comedy of its pair of underpaid and unambitious wage-slaves before breaking out the Shining and the ghosties and turn-of-the-screw tension to become one of most effective horror films of 2011. One of the smartest, too. An early gag in the movie, which threatens to echo/resonate in the films final shot, is one hell of a deconstruction of the jump-scare and its often gross misuse in the genre. This is a good sign that West has his brain and his talent laser focused on the nature and the possibility of this type of filmmaking. The syntax similar to The House of the Devil, but the tone could not be more different. Gone is the late 70s early 80s setting, although it retains a feel of classic, vintage filmmaking that outside of a few laptop computers, and a latte bar across the street, could place the film anywhere in the 20th century. Horror and comedy are rarely mixed well, but resulting cocktail here is shaken and stirred. Hell, it is downright effervescent. The icing on the cake is that the ending here feels far more organic to the themes brought out in the storytelling than House of the Devil. In its own fashion The Innkeepers turns the rules of this sort of film inside out while still managing to follow them. It’s a neat trick, and a welcome one.
Sarah and her bespeckled co-worker Luke (Pat Healy) have a solid plan to wile away their final few days of employment. The boss has taken off to Florida and they have free reign to indulge in a little ghost-hunting in the nearly deserted Inn. Like most century-plus old hotels, there is a legend of a ghost associated with the old place and Luke is keen to get some audio or video for his personal website on the establishment. The website, like anything the characters do, is a fair bit of a lark; something done for amusement as a time-killer. The guests also provides a bit of a distraction. A divorcee with her kid and a litany of complaints, an old man staying there as much out of nostalgia for the place as anything else, are fodder for front desk banter, but an actress at the very tail end of her career (Kelly McGillis plays the part with delicious self-deprecation) is in town for a psychic/medium convention offers a bit more interaction. Is she there by cincidence, fate, serendipity? As Sarah and Luke unconsciously lean forward with their microphones into the stretching corridors of the inn – or slump down on their elbows in frustrated boredom at the front desk – a curious thing starts to happen. They might just have whipped themselves into a fervour of belief that the place is indeed haunted. The director refuses to tell. West never quite reveals whether or not anything supernatural occurs, and this is definitely to the films benefit. Some backstory on the the film reveals that when Ti West and his crew were shooting The House of the Devil, they lived in the Yankee Pedlar Inn, a quite real place in Torrington, Connecticut that provides the wonderful atmosphere, architecture and furnishings for The Innkeepers. It also turns out that a number of the crew, as well as the director, were experiencing more vivid than usual dreams while staying there; they were, after all, making a movie about evil and the supernatural at the time. West has said he does not believe in ghosts, but he also believes that this does not stop them from scaring the crap out of you when you are alone in a dark, empty room.