“Endearing” is not the first word one normally thinks of when trying to describe a horror film. But that’s what comes to mind when I try to pin down Ti West’s new ultra-low-budget haunted hotel thriller, The Innkeepers. Which isn’t to say it’s good, because it doesn’t quite get there. But it does have a certain dopey, workhorse charm to it.
Claire (Sara Paxton) is a tall, gangly twenty-something, one half of the two-man team staffing the Yankee Pedlar Inn in the final weekend before the establishment shutters its doors for good. Her coworker is Luke (Pat Healy), another tall, gangly twenty-something, who’s prickly nerd-hipster vibe manages to stay just this side of unsympathetic. Luke has inaugurated Claire into his love of paranormal lore, specifically that of Madeline O’Malley, a young woman who hung herself in the Pedlar Inn a century ago. The two are determined to track down hard evidence of O’Malley’s ghost in the short time remaining of their employment.
This pair is fair and away The Innkeepers greatest asset. The film gives both Claire and Luke the room to become concrete, unique, breathing characters. Their natures and qualities exist independent of the needs of the plot; Claire in particular reacts to many of the film’s scares with an expressive, spunky hysteria that seems like it wandered in out of a teenage sex comedy. There is no particular reason for these two to be in a horror film, they just happen to have found themselves in one. And this odd mixing of expectations gives the proceedings a welcome freshness.
The film also benefits from an almost total lack of fat or unnecessary digressions. Ti West’s direction and approach to the film’s structure is unsubtle and blunt. But it gets the job done, and isn’t entirely without creative panache when the moments call for it. The Innkeepers makes very good use of sound, languid editing, and long pregnant takes to build suspense. On top of that, Jeff Grace’s score is substantive, emotionally engaging (in all the good and armchair-grabbing ways) and is a pretty good throwback; you could totally picture a young Bernard Herrmann whipping together something like it. So while it’s clearly a genre exercise — and one with significant flaws — it’s also evident that it’s a genre the cast and crew had a good time playing around in.
The purpose of genre is working within a well-worn framework to find creative ways to bounce off familiar rifts and motifs. But here it feels as if the filmmakers were more concerned with their own enjoyment of the genre than with giving the audience a worthwhile film. While its characterizations are strong, there is no evolution and little discovery. The script makes do with a plot that is almost entirely derivative; the true nature of the haunting, to the extent it is described at all, is nothing we haven’t seen countless times before. (And while West’s camera does not show a great deal, it still shows us more than his make-up and effects teams are able to carry.) The familiar rifts and motifs are there, but very little bounce.
Finally, the cruelest and most disappointing cut of this laziness is the way it insults the intelligence of the characters — who, as I said, West otherwise shows a good deal of care in crafting. Claire seems like a sensible, grounded girl with everyday ambitions, hopes, and fears. When someone like that experiences an intensifying string of disturbing sounds, visions and premonitions, and then consults with a psychic medium (Kelly McGillis) who tells them on no uncertain terms to stay out of the basement, you know what they do then? They stay the fuck out of the basement.
And if that medium comes back to tell them not only is what they sensed in the basement really freaky, but is literally out to kill them, you know what they do then? They stay the fuck out of the basement. In fact, they get out of the hotel completely. They don’t separate. They don’t go wandering off alone down empty hallways investigating strange noises. If they can’t find their friends, they wait in the lobby. Or outside, or in the bar down the street. If your script can’t function even while respecting that basic logic, then the problem isn’t the genre. It’s your script. Go back and write another draft.
Preferably one in which they stay the fuck out of the basement.