Written and Directed by: Ti West
Starring: Sara Paxton, Pat Healy, Kelly McGillis
Like a lot of people out there, prior to watching The Innkeepers, I had only seen one other film directed by Ti West: his 2009 flick The House of the Devil. The filmmaking skill on display in that movie was all it took to convince me to see just about anything else the man wanted to attach his name to. He has very quickly become a director that genre fans will blindly put their faith in (and for good reason, I think). Indeed, I came to this year’s Toronto After Dark Film Festival without knowing much about his latest film, but I was confident that he would deliver something special. And deliver he did.
All I knew was that The Innkeepers was a ghost story, and I had also heard comparisons to Scooby Doo — which intrigued me but also made me wonder if it could possibly be as tense and as absorbing as The House of the Devil. As it turns out, it absolutely is, but the movie starts off as something completely different: a dry, minimalist workplace comedy. It’s another slow burn from West, but this time the tonal changes make things feel very different. And while the movie is not really laugh out loud hilarious, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say it’s one of the most genuinely scary horror-comedies we’ve seen in quite a while.
Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) are the only two remaining employees at The Yankee Pedlar Inn, an old, rundown hotel that is going out of business after one last weekend. With the owner away on vacation, they both decide to live at the hotel for the final two days as they take turns working the front desk. Of course, they also have one other goal in mind: to capture on tape some evidence that the hotel is actually haunted. It has long been rumoured that the place is inhabited by the ghost of Madeline O’Malley, a bride-to-be who was abandoned at the altar and ended up killing herself. Whether they are ready for it or not, Claire and Luke are about to find out that The Yankee Pedlar Inn is not as empty as it seems.
Shot on a shoestring budget over a period of about two weeks, The Innkeepers feels decidedly small scale. With a grand total of eight cast members and (essentially) a single location, early on it almost seems like it could be the pilot episode for a sitcom. Claire and Luke are both slackers just doing their best to endure a boring job; their mundane conversations revolve around Luke’s paranormal blog and poking fun at the hotel’s only customers. It almost feels like a much quieter version of Clerks set in a hotel, only it’s not nearly as raunchy. (The overall innocence of the two protagonists is probably one of the main reasons for the Scooby Doo comparisons.) While the humour might be too dry or tedious for some, personally I had a lot of fun just hanging out with the characters.
Pat Healy (Rescue Dawn, Great World of Sound) plays Luke as a cold, snarky know-it-all who makes up for his insecurity with feigned detachment. He seems like the one who should be the most responsible of the two, but he blows off even the few minor tasks required of him, instead spending all his time clicking away on a laptop computer. Sara Paxton, on the other hand, brings so much warmth to her character that you can’t help but love her. Unlike most female protagonists in horror films (and unlike her role in Shark Night 3D), she is not all sexed up and vapid. She is just sweet and naive, and when the shit hits the fan you really root for her to survive the mayhem.
I was pleasantly surprised by how the mood of the movie evolves and how intense it eventually gets. A lot of this is due to Ti West’s amazing sense of restraint as the ghostly encounters gradually build over time. He puts eerie sound design to great use and resists throwing horrific visuals in your face until the latter half of the film. The hotel itself is also quite creepy (it’s a real hotel that is apparently haunted in real life as well). You can’t help but be reminded of such classics as The Shining and The Changeling, and like most great ghost stories, The Innkeepers simply lets your imagination run wild with possibilities. I didn’t think that anything would match Paranormal Activity 3 in terms of white-knuckle tension this Halloween, but The Innkeepers comes pretty damn close.
Kelly McGillis also makes an appearance as an aging former TV actress who has become a healer and can communicate with the spirit world. Best known for her role opposite Tom Cruise in Top Gun, she now seems to be starting a new phase of her career in the genre world after also starring in Jim Mickle’s Stake Land last year. Although her performance could have easily been played for laughs, she actually manages to help keep the movie grounded.
While The Innkeepers is, at its core, fairly simple concept, it’s one that was molded by a talented filmmaker into something greater than the sum of its parts. It does look a bit cheap and may have benefited from a slightly bigger budget, but the fact that Ti West was able to maintain creative control over the entire affair was probably a lot more valuable to the final product. Either way, if you don’t think you can laugh and be terrified in the same movie, The Innkeepers will make you re-evaluate that stance. Ti West lulls you into a false sense of security, and then proceeds to scare the crap out of you. — Sean
Recommended If You Like: Ghostbusters, The Frighteners, The Shining