The Innkeepers (2012)
Ti West and his regular collaborator Larry Fessenden have forged a reasonably successful independent horror studio with Glass Eye Pix, from which “The Innkeepers” is the latest offering. While Mr. Fessenden’s directorial efforts are broader (in all senses), Mr. West has been steadily refining a specific style over the course of three features (discounting his mainstream diversion, “Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever”), namely a kind of measured, reserved, retro horror that eschews gore and obvious schlock tactics. “The Innkeepers” is the apogee of this project, and it could mark a turning point for Mr. West and his future ambitions.
Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) comprise the remaining skeleton staff of the Yankee Pedlar, a run-down hotel on the brink of closure. With the boss away, only three guests and a few rooms remaining, they rotate 12-hour shifts and wile away the handover periods bickering, gossiping about the guests and posting ghost videos on Luke’s paranormal Web site. The taunts of a retired actress (Kelly McGillis) motivate the aimless Claire into trying to capture evidence of Madeline O’Malley (Brenda Cooney), the phantom of a jilted bride who, according to legend, still resentfully struts the corridors at night ...
Essentially a haunted-hotel horror with a core cast of three principals, “The Innkeepers” could very easily have been weighed down by comparisons to the near-identical setup of “The Shining.” Thankfully Mr. West’s film rarely treads the same territory, aside from one floor-level Steadicam shot and a clever allusion in the final moments.
It’s clear from early on that Mr. West is going for a more immediate approach to the almost mumblecore indie realism adopted in his previous film, “House of the Devil.” In almost the opening scene, Luke plays a cruel shock trick on Claire that also seems a bit cheaply unfair on its audience, although it does achieve its aim of unsettling the thenceforth wary viewer. Subsequent scares are almost the complete polar opposite, built up exceptionally, almost excruciatingly slowly as the protagonists investigate spooky events by creeping edgily down corridors and into dark basements.
Although some audiences have apparently found the film too slowly paced, Mr. West’s understated style is merely in-keeping with the back-to-basics approach favored by all ghost story filmmakers these days, from “Paranormal Activity” sequels to the statelier period gothic of Spanish spectral tales (“The Orphanage,” etc.).
Mr. West’s stripped-back scares might not be particularly sophisticated or innovative (he relies just as much on ramping up the soundtrack as any major-studio offering), but the way he utilizes the pure mechanics is undeniably effective. When it’s in full swing, especially in one magnificent scare about halfway through, “The Innkeepers” is an immersive and enveloping horror experience. Aside from the odd Dutch angle, Mr. West and cinematographer Eliot Rockett keep the imagery steady and precise; but with the sound design and music, there’s no such restraint: Jeff Grace’s impressive score utilising both punchy orchestral work and Carpenter-esque electronic clicks and drones to great effect. Ms. Paxton does a creditable job in generating sympathy for a character who’s apathetic and none-too-bright.
But when the pulse has settled, one wonders just which direction Mr. West goes from here. Despite its regrettable retro trappings, “House of the Devil” suggested a playfulness and experimentalism that’s less prominent in this follow-up (although perhaps it had a transatlantic soul mate in the social commentary and genre subversion of Ben Wheatley’s “Kill List”). Aside from the relatively leisurely pace and a slightly ambiguous ending, there’s nothing in the technique of “The Innkeepers” that couldn’t be incorporated into a big-budget franchise, now that Hollywood also has its own line in minimal ghost flicks. Having unsatisfying dipped a toe in those waters with “Cabin Fever 2,” he may be unwilling to be re-enter that world. But now he’s unanswerably mastered this level of genre film, Mr. West certainly has a decision to make.
Opens on June 8 in Britain.
Written, directed and edited by Ti West; director of photography, Eliot Rockett; music by Jeff Grace; production design by Jade Healy; costumes by Elisabeth Vastola; produced by Peter Phok, Larry Fessenden and Derek Curl; released by Metrodome Distribution. Running time: 1 hour 42 minutes. This film is rated 15.
WITH: Sara Paxton (Claire), Pat Healy (Luke), Alison Bartlett (Gayle), Jake Schlueter (Young Boy), Kelly McGillis (Leanne Rease-Jones) and Lena Dunham (Barista).