Directed by: Ti West
Horror, 102 min
I find that I quite enjoy the movies of Ti West, or at least I think I do. I have not seen all of them; I have not even seen half of them. I saw The House of the Devil 2009 and thought it was an awesome example of mimicking a style long gone, and done in a way that wasn’t exaggerated and stale, as many of the grindhouse pastiche movies have become… (Yeah, Hobo with a Shotgun 2010, was fun, but not much more. One-liners should come naturally, not forced out with each line of dialogue.) What West did with The House of the Devil was so skilfully perfected, that if someone had sold me it under the premise that it was a long lost late seventies, early eighties flick, I would have believed it.
Needless to say, I really enjoyed The House of the Devil, and hold it amongst the best of the last decade. Mood, atmosphere, visuals, approach, narrative and storytelling aspects, it’s my kind of movie. Which obviously means that I had a lot of anticipation brewing before catching The Innkeepers.
Claire [Sara Paxton, who I hated in the Last House on the Left 2009 remake, but totally believe here] and Luke [Pat Healy] are two twenty-something’s who are the keeping an eye on the Yankee Pedlar Inn as it slips into its last week in business. There’s only a few residing guests left in the building and even the owner, Rob, has taken off. Luke has an obsession with acclaimed hauntings that are supposed to have taken place at the Yankee Pedlar Inn and runs a webpage dedicated to the legend of Madeleine O’Malley. Clair in an approach that is almost as if she is humouring Luke, helps out to record ambience sounds in various rooms during her night shifts. A fun pastime until she actually records someone playing the piano in the entrance hall… a room she knows is empty.
Much like The House of the Devil, West smoothly approaches his topic with a method similar to that of a crocodile stalking blissfully unaware prey in the waterline. Instead of jumping in head over heels, he builds the tension slowly and merely hints at strange activities in jump scare moments or shorter scene climaxes. Just like The House of the Devil, when it’s time to peak with the culmination, it comes fast and without messing around. Tension has been built up, tweaked and teased for such a long time that the payoff is inevitable. Inevitable, terrifyingly effective and once again, leaving the audience with a bitter pill to swallow. Bitter in the best possible way that is, as the storytelling and the narrative does its job effectively. When that all clicks, you know you are in for a good time. And by then there's no backing out.
Getting there is an entertaining ride. Just as West approached the Satanic Cult in The House of the Devil, there’s several curveballs tossed and sharp turns laid out in the narrative of The Innkeepers too. The legend of Madeleine O’Malley is the main subplot, the ghost story that drives it forth. Luke really want’s to make contact with O’Malley, and even claims to have encountered here in the dark hallways of the hotel one night. Claire is more restrained and doesn’t really believe in it. Regular readers will go aha – the sceptic! - and you are absolutely right. Claire is the sceptic of the movie, as she doesn’t really believe, although through slow delicate transitions she moves into the world where hauntings are possible, and as we identify with her, we go right with her. Claire is a really empathetic character, shown through her gentle approach to things, even apologetic to rude residents, and her total geek vibe when her favourite actress Leanne Rease-Jones [Kelly McGillis] checks into the hotel and the time she spends listening to the love problems of the barista [Lena Dunham] next door – time Claire doesn’t really have, all build our empathy for her. The fact that she’s an asthmatic, tells ghost stories with a flashlight under her face, is really kind of dorky – watch how she reacts when she realizes that she’s in her underwear in the reception area – and somewhat of a slacker, all make her a much more likeable character for me, as she goes against stereotypes.
Oh, one more thing on bringing the audience into the unnatural world. There’s that excellent use of the Internet viral video, which Luke shows Claire early on in the movie. She watches the spartanly furnished room, through the web camera footage, waiting for a ghost to appear and when the feed cuts to a shock screaming face, Claire falls for it big time. This happens four minutes in and set’s a tone for the movie, which stays with me throughout. We understand that she and Luke play these kind of pranks on each other, although where Luke really does want to believe, Claire still only thinks it’s a laugh. Which is why when she straps on the equipment and starts recording ambience audio in the hotel at night, at Luke’s request to help him prove that there’s something else there but them, we start to empathise with her. And it’s through her – the sceptic – which we start to move into the world where a haunting could be possible. Again the viral video and the nightmare shock play into the hand of the sceptic. Not real, but tricks or imagination it gives us the same mind-set as Claire. When Claire starts to hear sounds on the recordings and see things in the dark, we too accept them as we now realize that this is no prank, or a dream. It’s really happening.
A second sceptic is used to manipulate the audience into believing, and that’s what the Leanne Rease-Jones character is for. She’s a healer who doesn’t believe in the ghost either, so when she starts acting weird and more or less orders Claire to get her stuff and get out of the Inn, you know that shit is going to happen.
There’s an everyday geeky kind of humour in the movie, which reflects the characters well. At times it’s almost as if Claire overacts on purpose to prove to the people she’s talking too that’s there’s a ghost in the hotel. Or possibly because there is supposed to be a playful attitude within the movie, even looking at the advance art - above - I can sense a tongue in cheek approach to the movie. Because that is one of the traits that I like with the flick. It’s playful, and joyful and doesn’t take it’s self all too serious. I like that in a genre movie and at time it helps sell me the movie a lot more than the regular tricks of the trade. This is also reflected in the soundtrack, which, in the first half at least, has something of a matineé-ish tone to it. Definitely not what I would have expected from a horror flick at least. Perhaps West want’s us to watch The Innkeepers as a fun, light-hearted film as this makes the flip at the back end so much more harsh, because the laughs will stick in your throat when the horror kicks in and scares that smile off your face.
Endings. Again, like The House of the Devil - which I'm constantly comparing to as it's such an awesome movie - The Innkeepers somewhat challenges its audience. Did it really happen? I know of people who read the ending of The House of the Devil as a possible “dream state/imaginary” space as to say that the movie never really happened… strange yes, and I do not really agree with it either, but at the same time, I definitely feel that The Innkeepers does pose similar questions. Did it really happen or was it in the state of fear and confusion that brought it all on? The last shot lingers on for an eternity before presenting the answer. And I also find that last scene to be part of the intelligent narrative that West uses in The Innkeepers. It's not to unlike the viral video that was seen earlier. He builds to a climax with the exact same tricks that the viral video does. And this is a motif that I find runs vibrantly though the movie. Is it real or all just a trick? During the last half hour, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a scene where Claire wakes up and it all had been a dream. Now this doesn’t happen obviously, but in some strange way there’s a feeling that it could have happened in the last act.
Scares. Yeah, there’s a bunch of them and they get more advanced as the movie goes along. The first being that viral video within the first couple of minutes through the hilarious “I’m standing behind you and don’t want to scare you…” moment, to the atmospheric mood that seeps in when they start to explore the basement, the really effective in-camera tricks, to the straight out grotesque moments which the movie culminates with. Yeah, West does deliver the scares, the shocks and the uncomfortable moments once again… and you know what, the second viewing is more so as you start to add together things you picked up in the first viewing with events in the second.
It’s my humble opinion that this movie will find it’s own audience and will generate a certain cult following. It’s a well-told tale with characters – well mainly Claire - that are totally believable, empathetic. Despite some of the scares being somewhat artificial – and the ghost of O’Malley does look kind of generic – they still get the job done. The power of the story takes over and the magic of storytelling sweeps me into the dark and I find myself fumbling for the light switch. Nothing is as powerful as the suggestive less-is-more approach that makes this a fantastic trip to Scareville.
I like it and I definitely will return to Ti West’s The Innkeepers as I’m convinced there’s so much more to read and explore in that great little movie.