Ti West has emerged as one of the most interesting horror directors working today, though his films remain polarising for fans of the genre. West has developed a particular, steady style which takes the slowburn narrative to its extremes, and some find this approach dull. It could be argued that his movies contain a whole lot of nothing in the name of suspense, and then end just when they’re starting to take off. The House of the Devil, for example, seems to spend hours watching a girl walk around a house, and it’s easy to see why some would feel cheated by the movie’s sudden, Rosemary’s Baby-esque climax; it takes forever to get there, and ends once it does. But perhaps this all comes down to personal preference – there are some who find the tension and suspense of the empty space horrifying; not watching for anything scary but waiting for the inevitable scares to come; it’s the dragging they say which gives West his edge. Regardless of preference, it can’t be denied that West knows the horror genre and is an interesting new filmmaker. The Innkeepers (2011) considered West’s best movie, is a small-scale ghost story about a haunted hotel, which has again split audiences down the middle; it’s a dividing movie, and one worth discussing.
The plot concerns the Connecticut based Yankee Pedlar hotel, on its closing weekend. Due to the shut down, there’s only two members of staff on duty, doing back to back shifts. Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) are two vaguely friendly part time workers with a shared passion for ghost stories. They believe the hotel is haunted, and are determined to track down the spirits before the hotel closes for good. One of the final guests to check in is former TV star Leanne (Kelly McGillis) who may know more about the hotel than she lets on.
The Innkeepers is a ghost story, and not a particularly original one. There’s no real surprises in the plot, but that’s OK – West isn’t interested in doing anything new with the narrative; his approach comes from his execution. Most ghost movies these days play out like fairground rides, with the monsters popping out for a succession of jump scares, and it goes without saying most modern ghost stories are dreadful. Studio horror tends to play to the lowest common denominator – stupid teenagers who would pay to see the likes of Annabelle – with the quality an afterthought. Thankfully, West has no interest in that, and avoids the genre for the movie’s first half, which plays out like an eccentric indie comedy, a semi-romance between the naive Claire and nerdy Luke. The scares are kept light and remain in the background. West captures the boredom of a long work-shift, with the characters playing tricks on each other and trying to stay entertained, and we become part of their bubble world. The two are petty towards outsiders (other guests, like Leanne) and we get a sense of their bond, which feels natural, like two people would working long shifts together. We get to know the two through the extended time we spend with them, as The Innkeepers spends far longer than most movies on build-up. The approach works though, and Claire especially we begin to feel very protective towards. Paxton gives a likeable performance and we care about her when we need to.
The Innkeepers harkens back to the golden age of horror – the 70s. This is a slow burn, taking its influence from the likes of The Exorcist, The Haunting and Rosemary’s Baby – all character development and quiet buildup, with a sense of impending doom to come. There are numerous parallels with previous ghost genre movies – most noticeably Kubrick’s The Shining, with which The Innkeepers shares a few tropes – the haunted hotel, psychic character, score and sense of dread. West steals with love however – he clearly loves the horror genre and The Innkeepers is a kind of love-letter to The Shining, as opposed to a direct lifting of it. As with that movie, The Innkeepers has a sense of ambiguity – are the ghosts real, or does Claire freak out and imagine them? And West crucially highlights that it doesn’t make a difference either way. As with the recent and brilliant The Babadook, the monsters are both not there at all and definitely there too; their reality has no impact on how effective they are, or how much damage they can cause.
The architecture of the movie – the space in which its given room to breathe – really does help in its favour and the pacing is spot on. This is the sort of movie you watch alone, in the dark, with no phone, and completely let wash over you. The atmosphere builds in the quiet, empty corridors and the tension comes from knowing something will happen, just not when. There’s a real sense of dread towards the end. There’s some great subtle scares; a video of a door closing on its own is no big deal, but later, we see a character enter this distinctive door herself; she doesn’t make the connection, but we do, and the scare comes from the memory, the realisation of how close these characters are to the horror. West wisely lets the audience make these jumps themselves. A key scene in a bedroom is just horrific enough to justify the previous slows scenes, whilst keeping the audience hooked till the close, which is fantastic. Of course, we never quite see enough, but the little we do get plays on our minds, and it’s great that the ghosts are solid and imposing too. Nothing is less horrific than a see-through ghost. There’s a Hitchcockian level of tension towards the end and West plays the audience constantly; there are constant moments of characters being warned against doing things they eventually do, which builds suspense not annoyance, taken to its extremes with an implausible moment towards the end (the audience scream, why is she doing that?) which works on tension alone. It’s a moment similar to Tippi Hedren going upstairs in The Birds; the audience don’t ask why, because they’re too invested to care. The climax is intense and terrific, if over a little bit too soon. There’s a great shot which holds on literally nothing for an agonising length of time, the anticipation of a scare becoming obscene. On a technical horror level, The Innkeepers is very well designed; not an intense horror as much a quietly brooding one, one which stays with you come bed time.
The movie has had its critics. The slowpace (and it is really, really slow) will grate on some, and that’s fair enough. Some horror fans will love it, some will hate it for the same reasons, but the best advice is to watch it alone without distractions, embrace the atmosphere, and see if it sinks in. On that note, West does clearly love the genre, and its great to see this kind of slowburn horror movie these days – a nice antidote to the likes of Annabelle, Ouija and all the crap studios are churning out for money. West certainly deserves respect for respecting the genre, and its likely he’ll turn out a horror masterpiece in future years. As for The Innkeepers, its biggest fault is that its almost too slight. For all its successful tone and technical scares, the movie feels so lightweight at times, not quite a full movie but something closer to an excellent tv-episode, or a part in a bigger horror anthology. This isn’t a knock on the small-scale or low budget, there’s just a cinematic element that seems to be lacking. The Shining, which The Innkeepers directly apes, seems to have more going on its first twenty minutes than this entire movie. As such, this may be a movie with little re-watchabilty.
The good however outweighs the bad. An interesting and technically brilliant little ghost story, and another positive point in the modern horror canon, one which pulls from the past. Fans should definitely check it out.
For more scary movie stuff, check out my Top 10 Scariest Movie Moments!