For fans of what one may call ‘proper’ horror movies, director Ti West’s 2009 retro-shocker The House of the Devil was something of a revelation. A slow-burner in the proper sense of the word, the film took inspiration from the best of classic Hammer by way of Rosemary’s Baby, The Amityville Horror and The Exorcist and proved that gratuitous CGI gore, cheap jump scares and a faceless cast are no match for pacing, escalation, a knack for storytelling and stylistic flair. The Innkeepers is West’s follow-up and sees the director again digging into his box of tricks to offer up something different from the norm, but does lightning strike twice?
Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) are employees at The Yankee Pedlar Hotel which is closing down due to lack of business. Working during the hotel’s final weekend the pair are also investigating the alleged supernatural disturbances that occur on the premises, particularly that of Madeline O’Malley, a jilted bride who hung herself in the basement and whose body was hidden by the (then) hotel owners. Also staying in the hotel that weekend are former Hollywood actress Leanne Rease-Jones (Kelly McGillis), a mother and child escaping a failed marriage and a strange elderly man who had stayed there years before and insists on staying in the closed down honeymoon suite.
During her shift covering reception, Claire takes a walk around the place and attempts to make contact with Madeline’s spirit. After getting unnerved Claire confides in Leanne, who may be the key to helping Claire unlock the secrets that the hotel holds, although when she and Luke start digging a little deeper they begin to wish they’d left well alone.
Owing quite a bit to Kubrick’s The Shining, The Innkeepers uses the sprawling hotel setting to great effect, using similar shots of the long empty corridors and vast reception area and creating that feeling of isolation and despair that made that film so terrifying. And in the tradition of all the best ghost stories, it’s what you don’t see that makes more of an impact than whatever the filmmakers choose to show.
Sara Paxton and Pat Healy are both pretty solid in their respective roles, playing the pair of amateur ghost hunters with the right amount of slacker charm and naivety to make them believable in this day and age of internet entrepreneurs. Kelly McGillis plays the part of the heavy drinking former actress convincingly and lends the film a sense of maturity, and the other supporting cast play their parts in a similar way.
Much has been made of the pacing of the film as it really takes it’s time to build to anything resembling a proper scare, and that’s a fair point as for the first fifty or so minutes all you do is follow Claire and Luke around as they do their daily chores and deal with the awkward customers. However, the wait is worth it as when things start to happen – and they do start to happen – we’ve already invested enough time in these characters to want to go with them on their journey of discovery. The House of the Devil played out in a similar vein, albeit in a more controlled way, and that film’s late 70’s/early 80’s styling’s certainly helped things along. That retro setting may be the one element that this film lacks, as modern audiences watching a ghost story in a modern setting may be expecting more from the narrative. That said, the result of all the waiting is well worth it once the realisation of the build-up is made clear and the secrets that the hotel holds are revealed. As previously stated, it’s what isn’t shown onscreen that’s most effective.
Overall, The Innkeepers isn’t quite as satisfying or terrifying as The House of the Devil, but maybe it isn’t really supposed to be. It does make certain demands of the audience that more mainstream filmgoers may not find to their liking, as it does have more questions than answers. Certain characters don’t really have set arcs and their actions and motivations are never made fully clear, but having room for interpretation is one of the joys of storytelling so if you’re willing to give yourself over to its mysteries and work through the long slog there are rewards to be had. Based on his record so far it looks like Ti West’s masterpiece is just around the corner, but for the moment genre fans who appreciate a master storyteller doing his thing should get on board.