Directed by Ti West
Starring: Sara Paxton, Pat Healy, Kelly McGillis
Ti West’s burgeoning cult status as a palatable, back-to-basics horror auteur is tried and tested again with “The Innkeepers,” an original script penned by West himself, one which feels like an apotheosis of the ghost story novella. West's well-regarded “House of the Devil” recalled the sinister machinations of Hammer Horror, bringing with it the trepidation of a playful myth growing into a perilous, inescapable reality. It may seem as if we see these stories told regularly, but never in so pure and devotedly emulative a form as in West’s odes to a bygone era, his approach proffering chills borne of simple visual techniques and a sense of storytelling skill absent from the conventions of the popular Gorenography and Docu-horror sub-genres. His methods borrow more from the moralistic fiber and literary modesty of HBO’s “Tales from the Crypt,” not overtly camp but indebted to Stephen King’s slow-burn tendencies.
Of the many interdictions associated with haunted house spooks, the world of fictional horror stresses that, when a character messes with artifacts of cultural or traditional value, coaxing dead spirits from their slumber for kicks, thrills or an ego boost, this is akin to a death wish. While the premise of “The Innkeepers” doesn't quite go as far as stating that the foreclosed property’s owners are paving paradise to put up a parking lot (the Yankee Pedlar Inn itself is grubby, low-rent, and unmemorable), the building’s infamous history remains a key focal point for Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy), the two staff entrusted with running this grotty, decaying hotel through to its imminent demolition. Predictably, this becomes a tougher task than merely flashing a smile and reaching for a room key, as, together with a past-prime actress convinced she has psychic abilities ('80s pin-up girl Kelly McGillis), the occupants confront the spirits intent on seeing the hotel’s final days out with a bang.
As proven by Sam Raimi’s “Drag Me to Hell,” the horror genre doesn’t necessarily require its heroines to be likable—or the fate of their battle for survival even vital—to assert a compelling narrative. Casting Paxton as the central character Claire has mixed results, her slip-of-a-thing dudette demeanor working with West’s derision of the paranormal amateur as foolhardy and entirely worthy of punishment, but otherwise flimsy as the film’s figurehead. Claire’s own personal hangups are touched upon in a scene where McGillis’s Leanne berates her on the insignificance of her life goals—to which Paxton’s bizarre reaction resembles the look of a pre-pubescent boy, had you just told him to turn his X-Box off and go to bed—but West fails to provide a foothold for this character within the dramatic framework, restricting an element of an arc or parable for Claire that feels needed to strengthen a lack of overall intensity.
West’s slow-burn approach is unsettling, but the suspense is strenuous in execution, “The Innkeepers” admirably resisting shock tactics until the gruesome horror of its final third, but nevertheless meek as a dramatic showcase. Much more concerned with existential bleakness, the film’s power of suggestion is valuably evident in the way in which it represents transition (of idealism-realism, fame-obscurity, and life-afterlife) through the suspended status of its setting, and an inherent uncertainty in the characters about their future. And it's all the more impressive for the ease with which it escapes parodic, self-conscious schematics, detailing the confluence of skepticism and curiosity in these people, successfully blending personal losses with the grander death of heritage through a tangibly crumbling aesthetic.
The literary feel of the film extends to an epilogue, in which dramatic about-turns threaten to arise but never quite make it into West’s heady denouement. It’s an indicative failure of this budding filmmaker’s inability to commit to the interesting beats of the narrative, or capitalize upon a genuinely intriguing setup. As it stands, there’s little to unravel in “The Innkeepers” but much to absorb, its strikingly astute genre mechanics a fundamental qualification of competence and direction. So why does it feel like such a missed opportunity? Say what you will for the allure of supernatural terror; here it gives way to the fear of empty existences and lonely corridors, a somewhat chilling prospect for a paranormal thriller, but hardly the bombastic feature that would make “The Innkeepers” crucially memorable. Like a navigating spirit, it remains largely anonymous, and West’s quest for his own horror classic lives on.