In The Innkeepers, writer/director Ti West’s first true project since his acclaimed 80’s retro horror film The House of the Devil, a pair of likeable slacker clerks, Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy), are left in charge of the Yankee Pedlar Inn on its last weekend of business. The place is haunted, or so Luke hopes; proof of the alleged resident ghost Madeline O’Malley would really boost traffic to his haunted-house website. A lowly clerk can dream of Paranormal Activity: The Hotel Chapter. Check in, never check out.
West is more interested in classic elegance than Paranormal director Oren Peli; there’s no grainy “found” footage and as he demonstrated with Devil, a modest budget doesn’t mean a movie has to look cheap. He’s a painstaking framer, a lover of symmetry, a firm believer in keeping the door closed until he’s absolutely ready to show his hand. Devil made him a hot director because he took a tired conceit (babysitter in peril) and made it fresh again, but with vintage style, mostly by taking his sweet time to build suspense. He’s an anticipation junkie, teasingly sending his characters down into cellars and up creaky stairs for two full acts without having them encounter the real danger you absolutely know is lurking. The idea is, by the time bad things happen, it will be a giddy relief, satisfying mayhem.
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He’s a little more playful with The Innkeepers. He might be mimicking the way Stanley Kubrick shot empty hallways and closed doors in The Shining, but the movie’s Victorian-inspired hotel isn’t off in some remote mountain location. It’s right downtown, in a civilized small Northeastern city (the film was shot in Connecticut). Samantha, the poor babysitter pursued by a satanic cult in Devil, got stuck in a creepy mansion out in the country without a car. But Claire can pop next door for a coffee poured by a barrista whining about her boyfriend problems (Tiny Furniture’s Lena Dunham, who had a voice cameo in Devil). The mundane setting lulls you; surely nothing really spooky can happen when a latte with caramel topping is so readily accessible.
West’s pacing is still slow, but less so. He used camera angles to build an agonizing level of suspense in the first 45 minutes of Devil, but in The Innkeepers he has the characters make each other go boo several times before that. He pricks our nerves then settles them with a good, natural laugh. Meanwhile West plants the seeds for the coming action — woah, Claire really needs that inhaler — but toys with possible red herrings.
I wanted very much for West’s new movie to evoke films like The Others or The Orphanage, which made me, in the moment at least, a believer in ghosts. The Innkeeper’s payoff lacked that kind of oomph, and weirdly, the pairing of Luke and Claire brought movies about work relationships, like Clerks and Office Space, more to mind than ghost stories. (The slow pacing gives you luxury to really think about these characters.) Luke serves a double role in Claire’s life. He is about 40 and his age and level of cynicism makes him something of a mentor to young twenty-something Claire – she’s impressionable, while he’s hard to impress – but he’s also her geeky friend, a loner who has found a suitably lonely place to hide. She’s young enough that this could be her first job and it is unlikely she’d languish there long. Or maybe not. “Do you ever regret dropping out of college?” she asks Luke. Every day, he responds. “Why do people have such high expectations?” she sighs.
In 20 years these work friends may have trouble remembering each other’s last names but for now, they are pals. Cosy, platonic pals, at least from Claire’s curiously asexual perspective (she’s a tomboy with a look of the young Reese Witherspoon). She’s so naive she hasn’t noticed that Luke thinks she’s cute. Does her treating him like just a buddy make him…angry? “Seems like every time something creepy happens you are alone,” Claire muses guilelessly. Is the hotel haunted or is someone playing tricks on her? It could be Luke or maybe one of the hotel’s last paying customers. Kelly McGillis, grim and grey, plays a guest who was an actress and has now turned healer/psychic. Never a trustworthy resume.
Healy (Great World of Sound) wears Luke’s furtive blandness like a costume he might shed at any moment and Paxton (The Last House on the Left) has an indie charm. Her Claire is, like Devil’s Samantha, a little depressed but still plucky. She approaches the spooky aspect of the Yankee Pedlar with more affection than fear; she knows the place so well it’s possible she assumes she can’t come to harm there, mirroring that relationship with Luke. More daunting than old Madeline O’Malley is a question posed by McGillis’ Leanne — “What do you do?” — that leaves Claire a wreck. She doesn’t do anything except bring towels and sit at the front desk. No one has asked her to. She’s too young to have to “do anything.” Right? She’s invincible. Right? The Innkeepers makes such youthful passivity seem nearly as treacherous as opening the cellar door.
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