The Innkeepers (2012)
written by: Ti West
produced by: Derek Curl, Larry Fessenden, Peter Phok & Ti West
directed by: Ti West
rating: for some bloody images and language
runtime: 100 min.
U.S. release date: December 20, 2011 (VOD, ZUNE, iTunes & Amazon) and February 4, 2012 (limited)
DVD/Blu-ray release date: April 24, 2012
Writer/director Ti West grabbed my attention with 2009‘s “The House of the Devil”, his genuinely unsettling homage to those babysitter horror movies of the early 80s. Everything about the film – the characters, the mood, the style – had me engaged and the retro slow-burn feel amplified its absorbing effect. Considering the recycled, gore-heavy features that have dominated the horror genre for some time now, West’s film was a refreshing genre entry. Now, he brings his “less is more” atmospheric approach to “The Innkeepers”, which serves as a reminder how unnerving a quiet empty hotel can be, especially one with paranormal activity. It’s a subdued film that will enrapture viewers with intense builds and climactic jolts – sometimes poking fun at us, sometimes frustrating us, while other times just creeping us out. “The Innkeepers” provides subtle moments of comedy to balance out the uneasiness, something absent from West’s last film, delivered by characters who are much more interesting and engaging.
The film takes place in the present, in an old Connecticut hotel named The Yankee Peddler Inn. We’re introduced to the Inn on its last weekend before it permanently closes. It’s not bustling with activity by any means and it doesn’t seem like it has been in some time. Indeed, the two twentysomething employees working the front desk, Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy), have a lot of time on their hands. One noteworthy guest who checks in is Leanne Reese-Jones (Kelly McGillis), a washed-up actress turned psychic who used to be something of a big deal who now exudes a combination of irritability and creepiness. The only other guests we briefly see is an angry mother (Alison Bartlett) and a quiet old man (George Riddle), who both seem to have their own mysterious story.
Despite the curiosity we may have for those guests, we spend most of our time with Claire and Luke. Well, we do follow Claire as she makes her way to the nearby coffee shop, where she encounters an annoyed (and annoying) barista (Lena Dunham, “Tiny Furniture”), but then we’re right back at the barren Yankee Peddler with these two employees. They come across as the kind of co-working clerks that have become so used to hanging out on the job together, biding time by goofing off, trading sarcastic quips, and maybe even holding back a crush. Their humorous beats and naturalistic chit-chat offer a nice concurrent levity with the knowing tension-building West is slowly crafting. As enjoyable as Paxton and Healy are to watch work the dead-end job banter, we know why their characters are there and that we’ll soon find out that they’re not alone.
Determined to use the emptiness of the Inn to their advantage, the two get to work on gathering some authentic material for their ghost-hunting website that Luke has created. If they can get some audio recording or video footage of any poltergeist activity of the Inn, they’d be totally stoked. Why are they so confident they will come across some ghostly material to post? Well, that has to do with the Inn’s most famous guest, Madeline O’Malley (Brenda Cooney, “The House of the Devil”), who long ago checked herself in and hung herself in the honeymoon suite after her fiance bailed on her. Folks say that the sounds heard in the hotel are created by the jilted bride and Claire is determined to reach out to her and find out her story. With some unexpected assistance from Ms. Reese-Jones, Claire finds her curiosity leading her to some most disquieting discoveries – especially in the basement and the third floor.
Some may not appreciate the slow burn style West brings to his films, but there is much to admire in them. If you pay close attention, you’ll notice here that from beginning to end, he loads his film with ominous sounds and indecipherable aural spookiness. It’s one of many deliberate and distinctive touches that West uses to draw in and maintain an audience. The sound design becomes its own character when we are forced to carefully listen along with Claire as she works the recording equipment. We hear every hiss, pop, and moan that travels from her mic to her noise-reducing headphones. It’s these little things that are probably overlooked by most, but they nevertheless add to the film’s palpable atmosphere.
By West reuniting with “The House of the Devil” composer Jeff Grace (“Meek’s Cutoff”) and cinematographer Eliot Rockett, he surrounds himself yet again with superb talent. Grace doesn’t go nuts with any jolting musical cues nor does he provide hysterical dramatic flourishes. Instead, he relies on building strings, supplying a score that carefully accentuates the suspense and mood in a complimentary partnership. And then there’s Rockett’s flare for the dramatic, with his use of tracking shots, scare zooms and crisp static clips. These are just some of the deftly-handled elements that combine to make this a feature with strong word-of-mouth promotion.
The overall tone (or attitude) of the film is both compelling and confident, holding in on shots in a refreshingly calculated manner. West cares more about how and when these ghosts come about, rather than why (something his script gladly doesn’t bother with), leaving us just as confused as Claire or Luke – especially with the way the film ends. His screenplay is free of exposition and full of time-worn dialogue that gives the film some life, despite its phantom menace.
It’s clear that West is making horror films that most fans of the genre probably won’t like. Those who have a thing for slasher flicks and the torture porn that has saturated multiplexes for the past decade or so, will be disappointed. West relies on building atmosphere and characters. Those who prefer to have everything spelled out are welcome to an early check out, but if you desire legitimate suspense, worthy of repeat viewings, then you’ll want to check into “The Innkeepers”.