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.
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