By Jessica Delfanti | February 2, 2012
Director: Ti West
Writer: Ti West
Starring: Sara Paxton, Pat Healy, Kelly McGillis, George Riddle, Alison Bartlett, Lena Dunham, Jake Schlueter
The greatest critics of the horror genre will make definitive statements about its reliance on formulas and tropes, cliches and repetition, and cheap tricks to garner gasps and shrieks from the audience. While these observations may be true for most of the Blockbuster hits that will spike adrenaline in theaters, this trend has also given birth to a delightful breed of satirical horror masters. Let it be said that Ti West is royalty among them, and his new film, The Innkeepers, does not disappoint.Set in a retiring hotel, The Innkeepers is a neat horror package. Skeleton crew of the hotel staff, Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) are self-fashioned ghost hunters, intent on capturing evidence of a haunting in the Yankee Pedlar Inn’s final days. Naturally, rumors of an apparition related to a death on the property forms a classic origin story for the haunting, and the vast open spaces of the near-empty hotel provide a perfect setting for a suspenseful ghost hunt.
Writer/Director West is not an artist to conjure up tales of unique creativity or edgy insight; instead, he works with the existing tropes, cliches, and repetitions to create something acutely smart and cheeky. Gripping the classic haunting film by its edges, he crinkles it up, adds a few lines, and smooths it out again. The result is charming, and impossibly fresh.
This is in no small part due to Claire. Paxton is a child-faced pixie with a petulant attitude. She stomps around the hotel, growling at Luke, flinging her tiny body from one activity to the next like a possessed rag doll. Her comic timing is impeccable, and armed with West’s writing, she is charmingly off type for a horror heroin. Playing against the grumpily aloof Luke, she makes one of the most engaging horror characters ever to grace the screen.
Most of the film consists of following Claire around the hotel as she attempts to contact the ghost and subsequently gets severely “freaked out.” These sequences are full of typical horror scare tricks, with birds flying in faces and clomps and clunks turning out to be harmless tinkering. Yet, the film is not undone by the feeling of phoniness to which these tricks often doom a horror project; instead, they seem like deliberate, playful winks at the audience. Got you, West is saying. And you know he’ll get you next time too.
The Innkeepers is a lot more than a few bumps in the night, however. West’s inclusion of home recording techniques and amateur ghost capturing technology is an obvious satire of the trends in horror toward handicam and low-fi. With each one of these sniggers at modern horror, West supplies a throwback scene, reminiscent of campfire scary stories and 80s haunting films that relied on story and tone to draw chills rather than film student gimmicks. Perhaps the greatest appeal of West’s work is that it is visceral, enjoyable, entertaining, and doesn’t give you the impression of degrading your intelligence. He knows exactly what is going on, and so do you.
Unfortunately, this self awareness tends to remind the watcher that this is just a film, and so it fails to lead to anything truly frightening. The spirit as represented doesn’t terrify (in some scenes, it’s unclear as to whether she’s even malevolent), and nothing feels high stakes. But perhaps this film, unlike The House of the Devil and its chilling suspense, or Cabin Fever 2 and its revolting gore, is not meant to garner such a physical reaction. Perhaps West aims for something more intellectual with this one. The mind is the most dangerous weapon.
Even tongue in cheek, his films continue to delight not just horror fans, but those that desire good story and characters on their screens. In the end, The Innkeepers is a classic and simple formula that yields a charmingly classic and simple result.
Also be sure to check out Don Simpson’s review of The Innkeepers.