Toward the end of 2011 I suddenly started seeing a little movie called The Innkeepers showing up on “best horror movies of the year” lists, which confused me because the film was off my radar even though it was directed by Ti West, whose previous film (The House of the Devil) had intrigued me to some degree. This is partly because the notion of it being a 2011 film was based on a dubious combination of festival screenings and a December 30 VOD release. For anyone who resists VOD and doesn’t have access to festivals it’s pretty fair to call this a 2012 release. The House of the Devil snuck up on me in a similar way in the year that it came out, and frankly I’m not a fan of these under-the-radar releases that seem to largely be geared toward the small screen. To me a movie isn’t really a movie unless it first run is in a movie theater, and when companies do shit like this it sort of cheapens their wares. Still, I won’t hold that against Ti West and his movie, which frankly deserved better treatment because it’s certainly a theater-worthy product.
Upon hearing the film’s title I sort of assumed that it would be about elderly hotel owners (possibly in the 19th century) who murder unsuspecting guests at their roadside inn straight out of Psycho, but pretty much all of those assumptions were dead wrong. The film is set in an old-timey hotel, one that’s so old-timey that it’s kind of a dump and it’s about to be shut down. The titular “innkeepers,” Claire (Sarah Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy), are decent and relatable young people hired to work at the front desk during the hotel’s final weekend of operation. For much of their time working at the hotel Claire and Luke have passed the time by exploring the legends that the hotel is haunted by the ghost of a young woman who supposedly killed herself there a hundred some years ago. As the weekend progresses Claire comes to feel more and more like there’s something to these legends, which are exasperated by the arrival of an old TV actress turned psychic named Leanne Rease-Jones (Kelly McGillis), who senses that there are indeed evil things in this hotel, especially in the basement.
The film has a pretty small cast so much of the film rests on the shoulders of Sarah Paxton and Pat Healy, and fortunately both actors hold their own. Sarah Paxton (who is only distantly related to Bill Paxton) creates a very likable and down to earth character in Claire, who is a fun easy-going young lady but not an obnoxiously hip one. If this were a romantic comedy rather than a horror movie you could possibly imaging the character filling the “manic-pixie-dreamgirl” role, and in that context she’s be annoying, but here she’s just an interesting presence and someone you want to root for once the scary stuff starts happening. Pat Healy also creates a fun and realistic character and there’s good chemistry between the two characters as well.
The fact that there are two big characters here is probably the main differentiation between The Innkeepers and The House of the Devil. These films are notable because they both have long build-ups before the actual horror stuff happens. When The House of the Devil finally took off in its last fifteen minutes it did it in an awesome fashion which was probably better than anything in The Innkeepers, but the buildup in that film was significantly more tedious. Much of the first three quarters of The House of the Devil involved a young woman, alone, walking around in an empty house as a whole lot of nothing happens. I could see what Ti West was doing, but he just went too far with it and it was hard to recommend the overall film when such a large percentage of it didn’t amount to much of anything. There would seem to be a similar dearth of plot progression in The Innkeepers for much of its running time, but this material feels a lot more watchable simply because the young woman at its center actually has someone to talk to and play off of during most of the build-up.
As the plot synopsis would suggest, this is sort of a haunted house (er, haunted hotel) movie, and while it doesn’t re-invent the genre per-se, its execution really does make it stand out among indie horror movies. On a more primal level, the film feels like a sort of campfire story brought to life. I was reminded a lot of a series of books I read when I was young called “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” by Alvin Schwartz, which adapted various urban legends into these perfectly spine-tingling and suspenseful tales which never watered down their effect in order to make them more palatable to young adult audiences the way that the R.L. Stine’s of the world did. I think this story would fit right in alongside “Me Tie Dough-ty Walker,” “High Beams,” and “The Babysitter (AKA When a Stranger Calls).” Ti West seems well aware of this as well given that there are at least three different shots where the heroine points a flash-light up to her chin in the classic camp-fire story tradition.
Of course a campfire story is just that, an effective story that gives you a couple chills before you go on to do other, more productive things like marshmallow roasting. They’re not necessarily meant to be fully fledged works of literature that you return to over and over again, and The Innkeepers has a similarly transient feel to it: it’s a small production that gets the job done, but it’s by no means a classic. Still, I think this is a much bigger success for Ti West than The House of the Devil and it further solidifies West as a worthy successor to the “horror director” throne and I hope to see further developments in his promising career.
***1/2 out of Four