Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Innkeepers

Here's another one from director Ti West. The Innkeepers (2011), West's followup to his breakthrough The House of the Devil, is a ghost story, and it shares many of the same qualities as his movie about a family of Satanists: restrained, low-key, tense, and suspenseful. Unlike The House of the Devil, The Innkeepers is more ambiguous. While supernatural activity definitely occurred in the former, the latter is more coy about whether there are really ghosts haunting its characters.

It's the final weekend before Yankee Pedlar Inn closes for good, and there are only two employees on duty: Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy). Only two rooms are occupied, one by an angry woman and her young son and the other by former actress Leane Rease-Jones (Kelly McGillis), who's in town for a convention. Mainly to pass the time, Claire and Luke, amateur ghost hunters, explore the haunted history of the inn. Supposedly, back in the 1800s, a woman named Madeline O'Malley hung herself in the basement after her husband abandoned her on their honeymoon and whose body was supposedly hidden by the hotel's owners.

The Innkeepers is a ghost story in the tradition of The Shining, right down to being set at a hotel and having title cards introduce segments to announce when time has passed. It also shares a kinship with Robert Wise's The Haunting because for much of the running length we're not sure if we're witnessing genuine paranormal activity or if it's all in the characters' heads. Instead of a phantasmagoria of special effects and poltergeists bombarding the screen, the film only shows little things: a door closing on its own volition, the sound of a piano playing off in the distance, is that a shadow at the end of the hall. The strength of The Innkeepers is we can't be sure for a long while.

See, Claire works the night shift, and when she's sitting alone in the dining room, with audio recording gear rolling, in the middle of a dark and empty dining room, she can easily spook herself. Or maybe it is the ghost of Madeline O'Malley trying to reach out to her. At a key moment, Leane reveals to Claire she's in town for a spiritual convention, and she helps her try to commune with any ghost in the hotel. Does Leane have genuine psychic ability (as she says everyone does) or is she just a has-been actress trying to stay relevant by convincing herself and others that she possess some kind of power?

Like in The House of the Devil, West doesn't rush the horror elements; his pacing is more deliberate. In fact, The Innkeepers, except for a few horrific moments and the final act where Claire and Luke head down into the basement to find the ghost of Madeline O'Malley, feels more like a quirky look at a pair of aimless young adults who just happen to work in a haunted hotel. Claire is a recent college dropout while Luke is a slacker (note his response to the woman requesting clean towels. His eyes never leave his computer screen.). Both are a bit directionless in life, and whatever their plans are after the hotel closes is never revealed.

As a result, The Innkeepers has more of a sense of humor than The House of the Devil (which was mostly devoid laughs). Whereas as the heroine babysitter was alone and scared in a house of Satanists, Claire and Luke have each other in a place they're familiar with; they laugh, they joke, they bust each other's chops, they have little games with each other, they get drunk their final night on duty. Because the plot evolves over the course of a weekend, we have a chance to get to know them.

When the West turns the screws, it is creepy. When Claire and Luke go down into the basement (after Claire was told by Leane not to), they sit in a dark room and attempt to contact the spirit, and the scene is mostly played in closeups, cutting back and forth between their faces, the dark, dank space of the basement behind them. When Claire tells Luke that Madeline is standing right behind him, you're ready to do what he does: freak out.

The Innkeepers is about as effective as The House of the Devil. It might not be as taut of a thriller, and the appearance of a weird old man who insists on renting a certain room in the hotel feels a bit out of place and raises some questions that are never answered, but when so many modern ghost stories quickly become dated because of an over reliance on special effects, I predict The Innkeepers is one spooky tale that will hold up for years to come.

No comments:

Post a Comment