Innkeepers, The (United States, 2011)

February 02, 2012
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Innkeepers, The Poster

Sometimes with horror movies, it's all about tone. The apprehension and dread one feels while watching a good horror film cannot easily be manufactured and some filmmakers incorrectly believe that gore and special effects pave the path. The Innkeepers puts many of those high budget endeavors to shame while also illustrating that it's not necessary to be a member of the already-too-crowded "found footage" sub-genre to keep an audience enthralled with apprehension. Ti West's basic story does little that's unusual except taking the time to develop the characters. They exist not as fodder for demons or ghosts but as people we grow to care about. In fact, the film is so focused on them in the early-going that it's easy to forget something paranormal is going on.

West is a student of the genre, and he knowingly includes enough clichés that we recognize he's playing with us. He toys with the concept of the "boo!" moment but is unafraid to employ it later. For the most part, however, he generates tension by camera placement and varying take lengths. If he keeps the camera on an inanimate object or an open space for a little longer than we expect, the tension starts to mount. The longer he holds it, the more anxious we become. Sometimes, he diffuses this with a gentle cut to something else, essentially saying "gotcha!" Other times, the payoff is sudden, brief, and brutal.

The narrative is projected through the eyes of one character and there are two ways to interpret the manner in which events unfold. It's not exactly Rashomon, but there's an element of that kind of storytelling here. This is fairly unique in the horror genre, which tends to deal in absolutes. No one ever wonders whether Freddy Krueger or Michael Myers exists, no matter how improbable their presences might be. Here, it's all about how the viewer chooses to construe certain scenes and elements. Things are less ambiguous than this might make them sound; The Innkeepers is very concrete. But it's a lot smarter than many horror films and doesn't not rely on gimmicks.

The setting is the Yankee Pedlar Inn, an old time hotel that has lost its luster (and customer base) over the years and is set to close down. Once a stand-alone spot for wayfarers to find a comfortable room for the night, it is now surrounded by the clutter of a modern-day New England town and has become irrelevant. The Yankee Pedlar Inn is supposedly haunted, and this is of more interest to the two final employees, Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy), than the few remaining guests. Both amateur paranormal sleuths, they plan to spend their last weekend at the inn "ghost hunting." Luke has already seen one mysterious spirit; Claire is eager to get a chance to see or hear something. So, when not manning the front desk or catering to the needs of their three customers, they roam through the mostly deserted halls and rooms with a special listening device, hoping to detect ghostly sounds.

There are two notable secondary characters, both of whom are hotel guests that fall into classic ghost story types. The first is Leanne Rease-Jones (Kelly McGillis) a psychic healer who is able to tap into the non-corporeal goings-on at the Yankee Pedlar Inn. She uncovers some bad mojo. Then there's a decrepit old man (George Riddle) who insists on staying in one particular room - the Honeymoon Suite - saying it brings back memories. One doesn't have to be a paranormal investigator to sense there's something not quite right about this codger.

The Innkeepers is divided into three chapters (plus an epilogue), with each segment being darker than its predecessor. Chapter One is lighthearted - an opportunity to meet Claire and Luke and observe their relationship. It's a work friendship that one of them would like to see go further but the other is content to keep where it is. Chapter Two introduces a supernatural element but keeps things relatively benign. Chapter Three is when we remember that ghosts generally aren't happy creatures.

West gets a lot of mileage out of a straightforward script. Some of that is because of the casting - Paxton in particular is wonderful and she and Healy develop a believable "work friendship" with a touch of sexual tension. Most of it is because West does not allow his shots to be hurried. He takes his time and permits the camera to linger. The more it loiters, the more the sense of dread builds. And there are times when we can see things moving in the background, just out of focus. Mention should also be made of Jeff Grace's low-key score, which at times exhibits hints of Bernard Herrmann.

One cliché The Innkeepers would be better without is the tendency of a horror movie protagonist to act in a moronic fashion. The climax demands this and its inclusion damages both character identification and the way the last few scenes unfold. This happens all the time in this genre, but rarely are the characters as well developed and believable as they are here. Stupid people doing stupid things in stupid movies are fine. Smart people doing stupid things in smart movies are not.

The Innkeepers is a small movie on a small playing field. Theatrically, it's going up against Daniel Radcliffe in The Woman in Black. It will show up on about 2% of the number of screens. So, for additiional exposure, the distributor, Magnet Releasing (a division of Magnolia Pictures), has taken it to pay-per-view. It's worth the $9.99 fee, especially if you're more patient with your horror and prefer slow-burn suspense and anticipatory dread to blood, gore, and clever uses of cutlery.

Innkeepers, The (United States, 2011)

Director: Ti West
Cast: Sara Paxton, Pat Healy, Kelly McGillis
Screenplay: Ti West
Cinematography: Eliot Rockett
Music: Jeff Grace
U.S. Distributor: Magnet Releasing
Run Time: 1:40
U.S. Release Date: 2012-02-03
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1