Two years ago writer/director Ti West established himself as one of the premiere voices in American horror with the tantalizing satanic tease of The House Of The Devil. Now he returns with another slowburn horror tale in the haunted hotel flick The Innkeepers. His latest effort incorporates quirky humor into his methodically paced style with mixed results. West is adept at writing subtly comedic characters and building tension, but something about the combination of the two techniques feels awkward in this outing. Tension is often killed by the comedy and the delicate mundane world of the characters clashes with the film’s supernatural shenanigans at times. It’s an undeniably flawed effort, but still an unconventional spin on the genre from a uniquely personal filmmaker that deserves to be seen, even if lowered expectations apply. Collider got an early peak at the film last week at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival, so hit the jump for all the ghostly details.
The irrepressibly adorable Sara Paxton stars as Claire, a wondering 20something without purpose straight out of the mumblecore handbook. She works at a crumbling local hotel that’s going out of business and the film takes place during The Yankee Pedlar’s last weekend of operation. Her and longtime work buddy Luke (a charmingly dorky Pat Healy) agree to sleepover during the last weekend to tend to the hotel’s final guests, a spurned wife (Alison Bartlett) taking a break from her husband, an elderly gentleman (George Riddle) staying in his former honeymoon suite, and a former actress (Kelly McGillis) turned psychic. Of course, Claire and Luke have ulterior motives. They believe the hotel is haunted and hope to capture some footage or audio recordings of the pesky poltergeist before the place is shut down. When Claire gets the psychic to work her magic on the hotel and discovers it’s a far more haunted spot than anticipated…well, the supernatural shit hits the fan as they day (ok, only I say that, but it still applies).
Much like Ti West’s previous horror efforts The House Of The Devil, The Roost, and Trigger Man, this film is all about build up and suspense. West specializes in carefully teasing his audience for most of the running time before delivering his major shocks all at once in the climax. The filmmaker even seems to joke about the technique early on in The Innkeepers when Luke shows Claire one of those jump scare viral videos where a static shot of an empty room is rudely interrupted by a loud noise and an ugly face. The director is well aware of his techniques and the scene feels like a wink to the audience assuring them that if they hang in through the long sequences of characters seemingly doing nothing, the big boos will come when they least expect it and hit even harder. The film’s few moments of ghostly shenanigans definitely have a stronger impact as a result of the build up then they would in a more ADD-approved horror narrative and should seer their way into the brains of viewers who are creeped out by mysterious shadows in the night. The same is true of practically all of West’s work and his willingness to trust in audiences to invest in a story rather than shove endless set pieces down their throat is what makes him such an exciting and unique figure in the genre at the moment.
Unfortunately West chose to experiment with his tried n’ true directorial methods this time out in a manner that didn’t improve them. The filmmaker decided to try his hand at comedy this time out and the bulk of the running time is dedicated to Claire and Luke chit-chatting about hauntings rather than experiencing them and poking fun at their few remaining guests. The scenes work in isolation thanks to some hilarious and sweetly naturalistic work from Paxton and Healy, but harm the structure of the film overall. West’s carefully built tension is constantly undercut by the laughs, either tonally or literally when the characters mock their haunted encounters. Obviously comedy and horror have been bedfellows for years and the pull and release of both forms can make for a fun and unpredictable ride like say, An American Werewolf In London or Shaun Of The Dead. However, those movies dole out their horror regularly, so audiences are slingshot from one tone to the other. With The Innkeepers being a film of build up, every joke means that the audience has to slowly build their dread up again and it really hurts the film. Sure, there were less overt scares before the last 15 minutes in House Of The Devil, but not a moment passed without something to make the audience feel that they were in a deeply wrong situation. The noose was constantly tightening in that movie and when the payoff finally came it felt like a well-deserved climax. Here, it feels more like the film meanders it’s way into becoming a horror movie in the last act. The scares and laughs work in isolation, but don’t flow together as well as they should.
It was inevitable that Ti West’s follow up to The House Of The Devil would be somewhat of a disappointment. That film seemed to come out of nowhere and worked so well that it would have been impossible to repeat the trick as perfectly. The Innkeepers may stumble at times, but at least it doesn’t feel like a cookie cutter horror movie. West might not have executed his vision as well as he has in the past, but at least he has a unique vision as a filmmaker. If you’re interested in the director’s work or unconventional horror movies in general The Innkeepers is definitely worth a look. Just don’t expect another contemporary classic from West. Filmmakers only ever have a few of those in them and to expect two classics back-to-back is greedy. In a few years this film will probably look like a minor experiment for West made between impressive achievements.