My short review of Ti West's The Innkeepers will be up at the City Paper's site whenever they get around to updating it, but until then, here's my longer take from its screening last summer, which has, to paraphrase the Firesign Theater, vanished mysteriously. (NB: That's Pat Healy above, who also starred in the Sundance buzzmaker Compliance, about which more next week.)
Unless you’re a diehard horror fan, you probably haven’t heard Ti West’s name, but it’s only a matter of time. Over the last six years, the Wilmington, DE native has been gnawing at the boundaries of the genre, setting out in a different direction with each of his five features: The Roost is a rural siege thriller, in which vampire bats attack a group of wayward travelers who take shelter in an abandoned barn; Trigger Man is art-horror, rough-hewn account of hunting buddies who become the target of an unseen sniper. Last year’s The House of the Devil was a deliberate throwback to the “Satanic panic” (and goofy hairstyles) of the 1980s, with an unsuspecting babysitter drawn into the plans of a demonic cabal. It also featured one of the greatest deaths in recent memory, which even now I’m loath to spoil.
Essentially a chamber piece in which two desk clerks ride out the last weekend in a mammoth New England hotel, The Innkeepers is West’s most assured film yet, a slow-burning creeper that pays off in spades. With only a handful of guests and one of the Yankee Pedlar’s floors already stripped bare, pixie-cut Claire (Sara Paxton) and hipster goof Luke (Pat Healy) have ample time to play amateur ghost hunter, seeking out the spirit of a suicidal woman whose body was hidden in the basement by the inn’s press-shy owners.
It takes a while for even these bare facts to emerge, and longer still before the spirit’s presence is more than a faint whisper on the pair’s sound recorder. But West, unlike most whammy-driven horror filmmakers, isn’t afraid to take his time, building character and mood before pulling back the curtain. As if to placate, or razz, those expecting early jolts, West front-loads the movie with jump scares. Luke demonstrates one early on, planting Claire in front of his laptop to watch a moody, black-and-white clip of a solitary rocking chair. “Watch closely,” he tells her, as she strains to see evidence of the paranormal, perhaps a hint of movement or a wisp of white. The camera pushes in and the sound goes quiet as we hold our breath, and then WHAM! a pale-faced child jumps, snarling, at the lens, and the audience’s collective heartbeat doubles.
If that dark-eyed child resembles the exsanguinated J-horror tots who were all the rage a few years back, it’s no accident. West is acutely aware of the way his chosen genre is trending, and just as determined to head in the opposite direction. If the film’s pregnant wide shots, which crank up the suspense by not cueing us where to look, share something in common with The Strangers and Paranormal Activity 2, West’s insistence on fleshing out his characters, even at the (temporary) expense of tightening the screws, is very much his own. The scene where Claire steps out to grab coffee from an oversharing diner waitress (Tiny Furniture’s Lena Dunham) has nothing to do with ghosts or the supernatural, but it makes Claire more than a pawn proceeding towards a foreordained death, Final Destination-style. Ditto Claire’s talks with Leanne Reese-Jones (Kelly McGillis), a former TV star turned crystal-toting New Age healer; their back-and-forth reveals more about Claire’s lingering insecurities than Leanne’s vague pronouncements do about the inn’s incorporeal guests.
As in The House of the Devil, West builds up more than he can pay off. Once they come out from under the bed, the movie’s monsters turn out not to be so scary after all. But then again, perhaps it’s a good thing the movie slacks off at the end. Otherwise the audience would be up all night.