I first heard about The Innkeepers after SXSW last March, when one great review after another started to roll in.The IMDb plot description illustrates that it’s a movie right after my heart:
During the final days at the Yankee Pedlar Inn, two employees determined to reveal the hotel’s haunted past begin to experience disturbing events as old guests check in for a stay.
Ghosts, a haunted hotel, a mysterious “past”… No matter the quality of the films that espouse these traits, they will never fail to intrigue me. I’m a sucker for a good ghost story. Throw in the overwhelmingly positive reviews from sources that I trust, some phenomenal poster art that hearkens back to classic haunted house films, a director–Ti West–whose work I had previously enjoyed, and eventually a really fun trailer, and there was not a snowball’s chance in hell that I would miss this movie. This week, I finally got my chance via Video on Demand. Unlike so many haunted house/ghost movies, The Innkeepers delivered on every last ounce of its promise.
It’s buttressed by several factors which drive the whole film. Any horror aficionado will tell you that if you want to make an effective movie about ghosts, atmospherics are a must. The Innkeepers is bursting at the seams with atmospherics, right from the opening sequence. The film begins with a series of faded photography (and drawings) of 19th century inns as the opening credits roll. It continues, with the inns coming closer and closer to present day, until finally we arrive at our location for the film–The Yankee Pedlar. Throughout, the editing, score, and cinematography thoroughly establish the tone and tenor of a haunted house. I’d venture that without a score as masterful, the film would’ve lost a little bit of effectiveness. The suspense builds and builds thanks to a slew of jump scares. Lest you think that these are cliché–as jump scares are wont to be these days–understand that director Ti West uses them very unconventionally. It’s almost a deconstruction of the jump scare, with many used for humorous effect.
The humor is one of the other major elements that makes this film so effective. It completely disarms the viewer. Many scenes seem ripe for horror only to devolve into humor. Viewers can only take so many scenes like that before they eventually let their guard down. And just when the viewer’s guard is down, West brings the full fury of the horror buried in his film. It’s a very slow burn, subtlety used to crescendo into a highly effective horror. And if you’re familiar with West’s best-known work, The House of the Devil (2009), then you’ll understand exactly what to expect. Like House of the Devil, The Innkeepers doesn’t beat you over the head with gore and traditional clichés. And in the process, he respects his audience’s intelligence. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention the excellent acting job done by the two protagonists, Pat Healy as Luke and Sara Paxton as Claire. Paxton, especially, seems perfect for the role and displays impressive comic timing.
Atmospherics may be integral to a good haunted house/ghost story film, but so is the background story. Too often, background stories in haunted house films are haphazardly thrown together, either added at the end with no build-up or desperately and unsubtly leeching at revenge angles. The Innkeepers avoids this pratfall completely by providing us early in the film with the tale of Madeline O’Malley. Rather than re-hashing it, I’m going to refer you to this fun little bit of viral marketing–a fake website created by the characters in the film. You have to appreciate the care that they put into it; it’s a dead-ringer for a crappy late 90s Geocities-style ghost hunter website. Most importantly, the O’Malley story is exactly the kind of background you’d want in an effective haunted house (or inn) story.
At this point, I’ve only seen The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers from Ti West. On the strength of just those two excellent films, he’s now a must-see horror director for me. Both of those films qualify as some of the best horror I’ve watched in recent years and I really hope West starts to gain the plaudits that he deserves from a wider audience. Apparently, one of his next projects is a werewolf comedy–two more genres that are right up my alley. And thus, the cycle of serious anticipation begins anew.