In his previous film, The House of the Devil, horror director Ti West successfully paid homage to independent horror films of the late 1970s and early 1980s through his use of grainy imagery and camera work, whilst almost playfully covering both the slasher and satanic possession sub-genres. In his latest outing, The Innkeepers, West moves on to that surprisingly tricky area of the haunted house which, despite some areas of brilliance, fails to live up to the potential seen through his earlier effort.
The Yankee Pedlar Inn hotel is open for its final weekend before it is set to close. Awkward Claire (Sarah Paxton) and nerdy Luke (Pat Healy) are all that’s left of the hotel’s employees, boringly overseeing proceedings whilst often ignoring the needs of the hotel’s few remaining guests to instead slack-off. They both also happen to be ghost-hunting enthusiasts and revel in the legend of Madeline O’Malley, a woman who reportedly hung herself in the 1800s and whose body was then hidden in the hotel’s basement by the owners. Two mysterious guests arrive during the night, the first, Leanne, played by Kelly McGillis of Top Gun fame, is a former actress turned psychic in town for a convention while the second is a strangely disturbing elderly man requesting a specific room.
When some freaky shit starts to go down like the grand piano playing by itself and bloody apparitions appearing, Claire asks Leanne for advice. Leanne cautions her about their ghost-hunting and, upon making quick contact with the ghosts herself, warns them not to go into the basement of the hotel. If the Paranormal Activity series has taught us anything, it’s that ghosts get slightly irritated if you try to contact them and then downright pissed off if you try to film and record them. So what does our dynamic duo decide to do? It’s the equivalent of a teen having pre-marital sex, smoking marijuana and then taking a bucket-load of sleeping pills in The Nightmare on Elm Street series, ie, a HUGE no-no.
The rest plays out somewhat predictably plot-wise with the scares themselves getting their job done relatively effectively and on the most part not relying too much on cheap jump scares. There is a merging of the slacker and horror genres that is certainly interesting to behold although something that may seem an uneasy fit to those seeking an outright gore and scare-fest. This also affects the pacing and much like The House of the Devil, the first half of the film is relatively slow-burning. There are still scares but on the whole, West focuses on building atmosphere and characterisation instead. This is an admirable strategy when placed amongst all the splatter and ‘torture-porn’ films that appear to be the current favourites of the genre although it is sure to prove divisive again.
What is unfortunate though is that this time spent on characterisation appears almost entirely wasted. Both Claire and Luke come across as an unlikeable and unsympathetic duo despite the committed performances of the two leads. West indulges perhaps a bit too much in the slacker genre so both Claire and Luke seem cowardly and just downright mean at times towards their guests. Furthermore, the fact that these two numbnuts are very much to blame for the evil that attacks them does nothing to fuel our desire and hopes for their survival. Elsewhere 80s stalwart McGillis is enjoyable in her almost tongue-in-cheek role whilst George Riddle as the Old Man is incredibly creepy.
There is a certain balance and consistency that director West is still searching for. The House of the Devil proved to be highly enjoyable – and on the most part, original – until its final third whilst here the first half is wasted on showing us unpleasant characters and not featuring enough frights. It is a shame as West is a promising director, obviously adept with the horror genre and confident enough to experiment with new and interesting takes on it. It just seems that we’ll have to wait just a tad bit longer to see this potential fully realised.
The Innkeepers (2011), directed by Ti West, is distributed in the UK by Metrodome, Certificate 15.