The Innkeepers Review
Some guests never check out …
It wasn’t until I sat down to write about Ti West’s The Innkeepers that I noticed its rather overt similarity that it has to another ghostly yarn that has found itself enjoying incredible worldwide success. Hammer’s The Woman In Black deals with an embittered female spirit lingering around and putting the fear of God into all who see her, and The Innkeepers treads cautiously down the same shadow-veiled corridors in another looming edifice that has gone to seed. But whereas James Watkins’ adaption of Woman was more immediately atmospheric and dark-hearted, and filled with frights and menace, West’s film is sedate and meandering. Where the Daniel Radcliffe vehicle was traditional in its approach, yet full-blooded when it came to the plentiful shocks, The Innkeepers is imbued with a sort of indie-sensibility and a more modern approach that goes curiously hand-in-hand with its almost nostalgic technical and thematic stance. The two films could easily share a creepy double-bill slot.
But it is West’s film that would be the one that you’d find wanting in terms of shock-value and all-round satisfaction.
New England guest-house, The Yankee Pedlar Inn, is in the process of closing down. Its third floor has been stripped clean, and only a handful of guests have checked in for what will probably be its final days. The two hotel workers left on-site, Luke (Pat Healy) and Claire (Sara Paxton) are staying through the closure whilst the big boss is off on vacation in Barbados. They assume that it’s going to be a very quiet time. However, during this shutting-shop period, Luke and Claire hope to indulge in a spot of spook-hunting. The Yankee Pedlar is haunted, and Luke hosts his own website dedicated to the various manifestations that have been seen on the premises, as well as other local phenomena. During the night, on seven-hour shifts, the pair take recording equipment and travel the corridors and parlours of the near-deserted establishment hoping to catch evidence of the most celebrated ghost they have in residence, the spectre of Madeline O’Malley, a doomed bride from around a century before who died in one of the rooms.
But things become more complicated when a couple of last-minute visitors check-in. The first is renowned actress-turned faith-healer Leanne Rease-Jones (Kelly McGillis), who is in town to give a talk at a local seminar, and the second is an old man who simply wants to revisit the honeymoon suite that he and his wife once stayed in a long time ago … which just happens to be up on that cleared-out third floor. Hmmm … sounds a bit dodgy.
Like the disused police station in John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13, it seems there are still some people who think this is a hotel.
Claire’s nocturnal investigations are met with strange noises, eerie voices and a piano that plays by itself. More often than not, she ends up shrieking her lungs out and disturbing what few guests they have whilst Luke merely opts for getting drunk and perusing internet porn. They are hardly the greatest ghostbusters in town. But as Claire’s determination to capture something on record gains momentum, a manifestation of the hag-from-the-afterlife severely jolts her, and she finds herself becoming drawn to Miss Rease Jones (I actually thought Paxton was saying Griff Rhys Jones at one point!) for spiritual answers. And then when she encourages Luke to come and help her find the ghost down in its supposed lair of the basement – the very place that the spiritualist has warned her not to go – things take a turn for the considerably nastier.
With his influences being The Innocents, The Haunting, The Curse of the Cat People and, most obviously, The Shining, West has some very big boots to fill, and it will come as no surprise to learn that his tootsies don’t come anywhere near the standards of those revered clodhoppers. With his 2010 offering, the notable House of the Devil (which also gave a part to another near-forgotten screen-queen in Dee Wallace) already revealing that his style is sedate and measured and entrenched in the etiquette of early Carpenter and even the likes of Val Lewton, in terms of mood-evocation and the more psychological components of the supposed supernatural, The Innkeepers, if anything, is even more reserved and simmering. Whilst moments of horror do occur, they are very few and far between. After a somewhat light-hearted first act, the tone of the film becomes reminiscent of Brad Anderson’s excellent Session 9, another chiller that takes place in an environment that has far more past behind it than future ahead of it. Melodramatics aren’t often called for, and with his threadbare cast playing things in a very convincingly off-the-cuff manner, there is a vaguely fly-on-the-wall aspect to the dynamics of their sparky exchanges. It isn’t quite the normal relationship you expect to see in a genre movie and that, alone, is worthy of merit. But the problem is that this odd-couple routine does become rather tedious, mainly because after an hour or so of being in their company, you find yourself sort of wishing that either Luke or Claire would hurry up and get killed off. The time spent making us care about them has, inevitably, backfired.
Paxton, who is apparently distantly related to the great Bill Paxton, is likeably kooky, yet her ditzy Claire is a weirdly aggravating character at the same time. Most of the story is seen through her eyes. We go on spook-hunts primarily with her, and whatever phenomenon that does occur always occurs in front of her. Or, in a couple of nicely unnerving moments, just behind her. We should be very thankful that she isn’t being played as some sassy, hip chick, and Paxton does provide some depth to the perky, pug-nosed tomboy. She definitely doesn’t add anything even remotely resembling sex-appeal and this, once again, is refreshing in a genre so often bogged-down with airheaded floozies who have just been recruited to add some glamour before their naked bodies get ripped asunder. But for some reason West allows her to be comical which, sadly, can’t help but derail the intricately composed tone on occasion. A trip to the diner just down the street has her listening in bored agony to the waitress’s love-life, and this scene provides nothing but time-wastage for us as well. We can already guess that Claire has been largely unsuccessful in romance, and this scene is supposed to clue us in to her relative naïveté in such matters. But we didn’t need to be told that, we can see it for ourselves. There is a glimmer of affection that Luke shows for her after he’s had a few cans of beer and, quite brilliantly, West just lets this moment hang in the ether. We understand that Luke, another obvious outsider, is struggling to find the right words, and Claire doesn’t latch on to the fact, instead assuming his interest is purely platonic, and swiftly leaping with renewed enthusiasm to go find ghosts in the basement with her best buddy. It is things like this that show West has a deeper understanding of his characters than most low-budget genre filmmakers, but it also seems to reveal that he would possibly have been better suited to making The Innkeepers as some quirky rom-com with Tim Burton-esque distractions cropping up now and again, rather than a properly sustained supernatural mystery.
Whose idea was it to have Luke sport such a ridiculous hairdo? Jeez, look at him! He’s like some geeky internet-nerd with a Tintin fixation. I realise it is supposed to look odd, but I found myself studying this wacky (not to mention just plain wrong) ginger Mohican more than the shadows growing around it. If Paxton manages to make her character likeable yet annoying, Healy frequently gets the ratio wrong – leaving Luke as an irksome wastrel who, at the end of the day, actually adds very little to the plot and achieves nothing other than some mild bouts of sarcastic irritation. That said, when he bolts from the basement during one impromptu séance, you genuinely feel his terror and want to bolt right alongside him! Interestingly, during this torch-lit and heavily shadowed sequence, Healy looks just like a cross between Michael Keaton and Elvis Costello in the weirdly distorted light.
Even though she’d been working consistently over the years, it was still something of a stunner to see the former Top Gun tactical instructor cropping up a silver-cropped nun in the low-budget vampire apocalypse of Stake Land, but Kelly McGillis was actually one of the best things in it, and she is better again, here. Initially frosty and acerbic and clinging to her persona as a wise-ass TV show celebrity, she soon softens and becomes the spiritual heart of this offbeat ghost story. When quizzed by the goading Luke about her so-called psychic powers, she stops on the stairs and delivers the sort of spiel that we’ve all heard a hundred times before in such genre material … but McGillis somehow makes this all the more believable and poignant. I wish she’d been given a bit more to do, but she definitely adds some character to the hoary old tale. Also good value is George Riddle as the “Old Man” who checks in for one last night. Inordinately creepy, as he refuses to stay in one of the still furnished rooms and insists that he merely needs some sheets to stay in the room that he remembers so well, there is a palpable sense of tragedy about him that you can’t help but empathise with.
So is The Innkeepers actually scary?
Well, West lines up some fake shocks during the first, more comedic phase in the hope that the real ones later on will have more of a visceral impact. He is partially successful. The tried-and-trusted screaming-face frame-lurch on the laptop is called upon, and there is a nice riff on Halloween’s real monster hiding under the bed sheet. He is also able to sustain high tension during the quieter moments when Claire is simply sitting in a room with her recording equipment and waiting for something to happen. But the film’s most effective moments come during the two big excursions down into the basement. One provides a slowly rising frisson of peril that really does make the hairs stand up on the back of the neck, and the other is a terrifically bravura escape bid when it becomes clear that the hotel is not going to give up its ghost without a fight. I cannot deny that there is a creepy mood to the film, particularly during the second half, and there is a definite impression that the tale could take some wildly unpredictable turns.
Which is a glorious notion that it is unable to live to up, I’m afraid.
West wrote, directed and edited the movie, much like he did with House of the Devil, preferring the John Carpenter approach to complete control over a personal project, especially as it helps to keep the budget down. To this end he also likes to work with a regular crew of dependables who know his style, such as producers Peter Phok and Larry Fessenden. His regular DOP, Eliot Rockett, once again performs some wonderful menace with his impeccable photography. The fabulous guest-house which, for the most part, is brightly lit and, on the surface, not at all threatening, offers long corridors, quaint rooms and nice wide staircases from which to compose some majestic shots. His camera flows with finesse along with characters as they probe the darkest recesses of the building, his fluidity unimpeded by any sloppy editing. The usual exterior view of the looming corner-of-the-block hotel is a terrific wide-angle that presents the place almost like a castle. The temptation must have been to have had this engulfed with swirling mist and with sickly yellow lights wanly illuminating the structure from various windows … but West does not grant such a traditionally evocative, though clichéd image. The look of the film, as with House of the Devil, is autumnal and slightly dour. There are no primaries on show, and no sunny vistas. This helps provide a certain briskness that is very welcoming and definitely more realistic than the glitz and sheen of a Wes Craven flick. There is a storm later one, with thunder and rain, but, strangely enough, West does not play on this aspect at all. Like the lack of mist around a building that is crying out for it, West seems to be consciously aware of the usual tropes and then nonchalantly either jettisoning them or just plain ignoring them. Personally, I would have relished the classic visual themes of an isolating fog bank, or a howling final night tempest with sky-splitting streaks of lightning, but West is keen to have us accept that scary noises and hellish harridans suddenly appearing out of nowhere are scary enough on a calm and peaceful night.
Returning composer Jeff Grace supplies him with another eerie and unsettling sore. I’d heard the music for The Innkeepers long before I actually saw the film it was written for. I like Grace’s work and I should really give the young composer some more coverage with CD reviews because his ability to combine dark textural ambience with lyrical themes and stark, bludgeoning set-pieces of orchestral ferocity mark him out as being a genre composer to listen out for. He also provided the semi-parody score for Fessenden’s I Sell The Dead and the grim cadences for Jim Mickle’s Stake Land, as well as working in the music department for Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, so he understands the intimate as well as the epic. His main theme for The Innkeepers is marvellously rhythmic and memorable, and he also comes up with some beautifully subtle phrases, such as that for Miss Reece Jones’ psychic pendulum, and his penchant for strings provides lots of delicious, blood-freezing Herrmann-esque terror. Together with the location photography from Rockett, the music adds quality and a class that provides the film with a sense of the both the supernatural and the neglected elegance of a once esteemed guest-house that is about to shut its doors for good.
Alongside the wonderful score, another one of the film’s most effective elements is its rather unnerving sound design. Before the film starts on this BD, there is a little message from the disc producers advising that you should play it loud. Well, to this extent, there are lots of sudden stingers, some bizarre whispering and other unnatural sounds emanating from all around the building, thumps, bumps, shuffling and static. In one early moment, Claire has donned earphones whilst she watches some footage on the laptop and Luke’s voice, coming from right beside her, is realistically muted and dislocated as a result. This said, however, I would still place The Innkeepers in the category marked Subtle Horror.
Irish-born Brenda Cooney who was also in House of the Devil for West and I Sell The Dead for Fassenden, plays the harrowing-visaged spectre of Madeline O’Malley, and what a thankless, yet pivotal role this turns out to be. Like Liz White, who donned the frightwig and beyond-the-grave makeup for the titular Woman in Black, and who at least got to deliver a couple of different facial expressions and had a story-arc of her own, she merely gets a second or two of screentime, which is primarily just to lean into the shot or to simply stand there in the gloom looking, um, spooky. To be honest, I don’t mind a ghoul that is barely seen, in fact it is usually much more terrifying that way, but I expected this entity to do a little more than merely appear. Then again, actual activity is not that essential so long as the spectre maintains a “presence” throughout the tale, but we are told so little about her (barring one rather dim-witted “history lesson” that Claire delivers to the most inappropriate of audiences), that her spell over the story feels very tenuous. In other words, when we see her, she is merely a boo-device. We have no sympathy for her, and not a great deal of fear of her. We don’t know what she wants and, thus, we have to wonder just why a ghost-hunter who so desires to witness such things in the first place keeps running hell-for-leather whenever she appears.
West has spent so much time fashioning his screwball characters that he has forgotten to give the film any real impetus. And yet I still find myself praising his considered decision to practice restraint when so many others would have found an excuse to splash the gore.
Although House of the Devil was still something of a missed opportunity, I feel it was a more effective experience than this, being both much scarier and bloodier. The atmosphere of The Innkeepers is finely developed, and even if the shocks are of the most obvious sort, one or two of them work very efficiently indeed, but the final pay-off is wretched and I’m surprised that West settled for so lacklustre a denouement, even if he is deliberately taking a pot-shot at the frequently overblown, FX-ridden finales of a great many modern scream-fests. Devil drifted into another genre altogether once we had the big reveal, but won points for being so bold and enthusiastic, even if the conclusion left you with many more questions than answers. Innkeepers, too, wants to blend genres, although far more gently. The plot itself sticks to the one supernatural theme but fails to deliver the goods when it really counts … and the movie runs the risk of coming across as a kooky indie drama with a little bit of ghostly horror thrown in. Like Devil it, too, wants to leave you with a few nagging conundrums and something to mull over, but this is a very tricky manoeuvre to master … and with two attempts now, West still hasn’t properly managed it. Ambiguity is both an art and a science. You’ll clearly perceive the two possibilities that he is playing with, which I won’t spoil for you, and even if the final shot forms a nice symmetry with an earlier image … it is too little and too late to save the film from being frustratingly anti-climactic.
Although I still have high hopes for Ti West, who has a story in the anthology movie V/H/S, and a couple more productions on the go,I would say that The Innkeepers is probably best left as a rental for anyone other than die-hard fans. There are some creepy moments that definitely impress, but the film then drops the ball during the crucial last act and becomes severely prone to deflate.
Admire the outside and the foyer … but don’t waste your time checking in.