The Innkeepers

The Innkeepers

***

Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

A slow-burning horror film, set in a creepy American hotel with a sinister past – no-one can say that Ti West shies away from a challenge.

Comparisons with Kubrick’s The Shining will be inevitable, but The Innkeepers stands up well enough on its own as another attempt to answer the vexed question: how do you make a horror film that still makes you jump, and care what happens to its protagonists, when the genre’s tropes have been examined to the point of self-parody?

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Working on a fraction of the budget of Cabin In The Woods and without the self-imposed ‘single-take’ limitations of Silent House, West goes for establishing a high level of intimacy with his central characters, focusing on mundane details while building a gradual sense of menace and unease.

Claire (Paxton) and Luke (Healy) are desk clerks and general dogsbodies at the Yankee Pedlar Inn, an old-fashioned hotel in a small Connecticut town. Both are intelligent but bored underachievers, so when the owner leaves them in charge of the virtually-deserted hotel on its last weekend before going out of business, they see a chance to exploit the growing craze for ‘ghost footage’ websites by recording and filming evidence of the resident apparition – Madeline O’Malley, a young bride-to-be who was driven by tragedy to commit suicide in the hotel over a hundred years ago.

It doesn’t take a psychic to figure out how things will pan out – but one turns up anyway, in the shape of Leanne Rease-Jones (McGillis), a former TV actress who’s now reinvented herself as a ‘healer’ and ‘spiritual guide’ and is in town for a convention. The starstruck Claire confides in her but continues with the ghost-hunting despite Leanne’s cryptic warnings.

West is clearly unafraid of engaging with some of the genre’s stereotypes, as he proved with 2009’s well-received Eighties-style Satanic slasher House Of The Devil (staying at the Yankee Pedlar while filming and feeling a supernatural vibe from its dark history was the inspiration behind The Innkeepers). But this film is a somewhat different beast - most of the early scenes are preoccupied with setting out the two slackers’ ordinary, unfulfilled lives in some considerable detail while the camera lingers over every inch of the hotel’s interior, rather than putting an incident-heavy plot in motion.

There’s some good black humour and character insight to be found in the bored twentysomethings’ exchanges and the dated, winding-corridored hotel emerges as a character in its own right even before the bumps and whispers begin. But it’s a thin line between a satisfying slow-burn and just letting things drag on a bit. And I for one grew increasingly impatient for West the director to tighten things up and cut to the inevitable chase.

So when the piano starts playing itself and the guest roster is doubled by an ancient, careworn old man (Riddle) keen to spend one last night at a place with ‘so many memories’ it’s a relief – but also a disappointment, as horror movie golden rules (don’t split up; don’t go into the unlit basement; don’t be an unnamed minor character) are once again wilfully broken and all that’s really left is to see how efficiently West can play out the ‘behind you’ climax.

He does so pretty well, conjuring up a fair degree of suspense and some effective twists as the would-be ghostbusters realise they’re genuinely playing with fire. But you won’t need psychic abilities to experience a strong sense of déjà vu. It’s been done before, and better, of course - Kubrick and Hitchcock naturally, but also Mikael Hafstrom’s Stephen King adaptation 1408, which provided shocks and suspense in equal measure but tinkered with the audience’s perceptions of reality even more.

The Innkeepers delivers well enough on all fronts – the editing (also by West) and cinematography are as tight and atmospheric as you’d wish and the performances are excellent. Paxton and Healy (TV and film veterans despite their youth) get right under the skin of their characters and McGillis proves she’s still a strong, commanding screen presence, making Leanne an enigmatic, unsettling character with just a few well-delivered lines and looks.

But you can’t help thinking that West would have made a better (and perhaps more genuinely unsettling) film if he’d focused more on the inner demons of his young protagonists – insecure attention seekers anxious for something genuinely unexpected and inexplicable to come into their drab, disappointing lives but equally fearful of whether it might all be in their minds and, if not, whether they can control it.

Instead one has an enjoyable, effective-enough piece that will further strengthen West’s reputation within the genre. But he needs to break out of it, or genuinely subvert it, to join the ranks of cinema’s great campfire storytellers.

Reviewed on: 08 Jun 2012
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The Innkeepers packshot
An old inn is about to shut its doors for the final time and two of its employees get more than they bargain for when they go ghost hunting.
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Director: Ti West

Writer: Ti West

Starring: Sara Paxton, Pat Healy, Kelly McGillis, George Riddle, Alison Bartlett, Lena Dunham, Jake Schlueter, John Speredakos

Year: 2011

Runtime: 102 minutes

Country: US

Festivals:

Frightfest 2011

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