Directed, written and edited by Ti West. Produced by Derek Curl, Larry Fessenden, Peter Phok, Ti West. Music by Jeff Grace. Photographed by Eliot Rockett. Production designed by Jake Healy. Starring Sara Paxton, Pat Healy, Alison Bartlett, Jake Ryan, Kelly McGillis, Lena Dunham.
The key to any great horror movie, for my money, is strong characters. Sounds simple, and yet this insight eludes many genre filmmakers, who labor in lesser fields, competing with each other to deliver the most gore or the most surprises. Some of these things, of course, do their job and affect us. But most times the result is transient. To create a truly memorable horror film, you have to have people that we care about and understand. People that have needs, and seem to have lives that exist separate from the realities of a horror film. A young girl randomly deciding to descend into an ominous basement is not very frightening. But a young girl at a dead-end job, who craves desperately to capture proof of the paranormal and is fumbling for her asthma inhaler as she descends into an ominous basement? Now you’re talking.
The Innkeepers is a ghost story that contains, complements and embraces the brand of storytelling found in that second example. Yes, storytelling, because it has the patience to wait, and to gradually ramp up to horror. It operates at what some would call a slow burn. Rather than retreating to shameless special effects, it takes its time. It establishes a particular place, populates it with specific people, and gives each of them a distinct motivation. And like many great movies, it spends a lot of time watching, not straining, with little overt manipulation. Stephen King once observed that a secret to writing is just to set up your characters and see where they go, and that philosophy is ever-present in The Innkeepers. Like many stories by King and other writers of the old stripe, the supernatural is used here as a springboard to tell us about some interesting people and what happens to them. Yes, there is the possibility of ghosts and not the slam-bang insistence of them, but then, to most people, the possibility is quite enough.
The two people are Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy), two schlubs working behind the counter at the historic Yankee Peddlar Inn. The Inn is closing at the end of a long weekend, and Claire and Luke are going through the motions, making up the entirety of a skeleton crew, staying in rooms themselves and swapping shifts. Most of the time they stay together anyway, since they have an easy rapport that lies somewhere between affection and deeply buried attraction. Claire is about 25 and without much direction or drive, and Luke is older but much the same. Both have long suspected that the Yankee Peddlar is haunted, and Luke has a chintzy website he maintains that promises evidence but is a little thin.
The two of them have a nice double act. They’ve been working together for a while, will miss each other, and they spend much of the weekend in games of good-humored one-upsmanship. They like inside jokes and know each other very well. When Claire retreats from a chirpy barista (Tiny Furniture and “Girls” mastermind Lena Dunham) and collapses on the inn’s lobby couch, Luke is able to read her thoughts without even looking at her. Their relationship feels as lived-in as the hotel. You buy it. Meanwhile, three guests wander in and out of the near-deserted inn: an annoying housewife (Alison Bartlett) going through troubles, her stone-faced child (Jake Schlueter), and a former TV star (Kelly McGillis) who’s making a convention appearance somewhere nearby.
With this being the last weekend of Inn operation, both Luke and Claire are looking for a big score. The Peddlar is haunted, they’re sure of it. After all, the hotel comes with its own ghost story baggage of a restless, spectral bride, and where there’s smoke, there’s fire, right? Both workers are amateur ghost hunters, and Luke has built a webpage that’s light on content and looks state of the art…for 1998. The video camera is in the shop, but they have audio equipment and plenty of free time, so they know they have to try.
Whether there are actually are ghosts in the Yankee Peddlar, and whether they capture them I will not say. Piano music is heard faintly, but it could be Claire’s imagination. Luke swears he saw something once, but there’s no proof. The McGillis character seems to know more than she’s letting on, but she could be just full of it. And what about the ghastly fourth guest (George Riddle) who stops in? Best not dwell upon him.
Ghosts or not, The Innkeepers is insidious in how it draws tension. It hints at the paranormal and lets those hints be enough. It favors long, lovingly composed shots that serve as an antidote to slick, quickly-cut thrillers. Shots linger on objects and we wait for something to happen…and wait…and wait. Frequently, nothing happens…but what if…? This quieter, tentative philosophy isn’t a cheat from director Ti West, who masterfully conducts the whole scenario. What he’s going for is an evocation of boredom and ennui, constantly punctuated by the anticipation of punctuation. He knows that true fright often lives in the fringes, in the breaths between breaths. His movie is all fringes.
That’s why the characters are so important. Even when things get really dicey, the characters behave vividly and…huh, believably. Reckless, perhaps. But believably reckless. One sequence set in that musty, dark basement, as Luke and Claire hold a makeshift séance, owes a lot to Claire’s determination and Luke’s palpably diminishing courage. The film relies on the old standby of the heroine being frightened by the sudden appearance of a friendly co-star, but when was the last time in a movie that that second person actually tried to warn the first person before he surprised her? When things go badly and Claire might be on her own, she makes mistakes, but mistakes that we could see ourselves doing. This is a far cry from the “character development” found in lesser, cynical horror films, where people are given one or two characteristics, but are mostly just stockpiled monster bait.
The two central actors, Paxton and Healy, are required to give performances of interest, and they do. Using no makeup, dressed in frumpy clothes and with no fancy hairstyling, these aren’t movie star parts. They’re roles for journeyman character actors, and they make them their own. Paxton, who successfully graduates here from tween films to young adult roles, gives a leading lady performance that is quirky. Different. Very un-Hollywood. But also very true to form, because some people are just like this. Healy, who’s like a less-smarmy Joe Pantoliano, basically plays a dweeb whose passivity masks frustration; he’s given funny lines, yet he never seems like he’s trying to be funny.
The MVP of The Innkeepers, however, is Ti West. Acting as director, writer and editor, the film is a pure expression of his idea of horror, which rebukes the senselessness of his fellow filmmakers. West also directed the 2009 horror film House of the Devil, about a babysitter who takes absolutely the wrong job. There, too, he did a good job of marshaling tension through everyday occurrences. I find these types of horror stories most effective, because they dance just out of sight of our normal experience, and don’t involve Satan, cults or violent spirits. Okay, maybe they do…but we step to them with grace and precision. If most horror directors value money shots, then how nice to see one treasuring the act of foreplay.
West’s films remind me of the early work of M. Night Shyamalan, who was also very good at eliciting strong performances from actors and planting mundane, recognizable characters in a subtle supernatural horror. He also shares with Shyamalan a weakness at developing climaxes. The ending of The Innkeepers is scary and effective, but it’s also just kind of there, and leaves us with questions that I’m not sure are supposed to be the point. Instead of working from some invisible but tangible logic, West seems content to spook us, leave loose ends untied and just set us adrift. That’s alright; he still built a creepy ride just the same.
And then…did you see the last shot? Did you really see it? I saw it projected on a movie screen, and I’m not even sure I saw it right. Then I saw it again, and could have sworn that…hmm. Well, it might have been my imagination. Yeah, it had to have been.
NOTE: Ti West also contributed a segment to the new horror anthology V/H/S, and for my money, it (about a couple on honeymoon who meet a mysterious drifter) is the strongest installment in a very uneven film.