Heed its warning, my children. Like so many cerebral horror films in which gore is not their reason for being, carefully crafted sound design is a large, integral part of the experience, and writer/director/editor Ti West’s follow-up to 2009’s acclaimed The House of the Devil is indeed an experience.
That said, I fully understand why so many people will hate it. More on that in a bit.
The Innkeepers takes place inside Connecticut’s real-life Yankee Pedlar Inn, a quaint hotel cast in that Old New England style. Within the context of the movie, the place is calling its quits, and with the owner out of town, that leaves its two remaining employees to see it through its final weekend of business.
Not that there is much business. With just two to three rooms occupied — one most recently by an aging former actress (’80s sex symbol Kelly McGillis, last seen in Stake Land) who now toils as a psychic — the awkward and nerdy Claire (Sara Paxton, Shark Night) and the Tintin-haired hipster Luke (Pat Healy, Dirty Girl) utilize the downtime to pursue further the longstanding rumors of the place being possessed by the ghost of a jilted woman who killed herself in a third-floor room so many decades ago.
Like a certain other movie about a haunted hotel, West’s film is told in distinct chapters carved from blocks of time. Within, each successive sequence methodically ratchets up the tension by a mere notch or two. By the time the title card rolls around for chapter three, “The Final Guest,” you know you’re going to rewarded for your patience. And you are; it pays off big.
As with The House of the Devil, West’s timing is set to “slow burn.” That means this is not, say, a Saw, where someone gets pulled apart every 12 minutes. Instead, West draws viewers in with story, not shocks. There are some scares along the way — a good one right upfront, actually — but they’re all leading toward a resolution to the plot, rather than being an end unto themselves.
Therefore, if your attention span operates only in YouTube-allowable bursts, you’re going to dismiss the film outright as “boring.” It’s not, but you might be.
Proving Devil was no fluke, West uses the setting to his advantage, creates a unique atmosphere, sticks to it, and lets ’er rip. Suspense is sustained until the very last moment possible. It would not work as well as it does if Paxton and Healy weren’t similarly passionate, but they are; Paxton impresses most among the small but solid cast because for once in her career, the former model is not playing the hot blonde. With chopped hair and little makeup, she can’t get by on looks alone, and she’s completely believable as somewhat of a dark-minded dork.
West is the real deal, a vital spoke in the wheel of today’s indie filmmakers who will take genre film not only to the next generation, but to the next level, ironically by looking back a bit. The Innkeepers harkens back to the thoughtful frights of Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby or Robert Wise’s The Haunting, but told on a smaller scale, no less effective.
It may be the first film of 2012 I’m anxious to watch again, as soon as I can. Lovers of smartly told suspense stories, especially those involving ghosts, will admire its every turn. Only two things mar this gem, and neither has to do with the movie itself, but the Blu-ray disc:
• The behind-the-scenes footage gives away practically everything, so don’t watch it before the film.
• The menu seems to have been designed to be make navigation problematic. —Rod Lott