The American horror film, like most genres these days, is in generally dire condition. With the occasional exception, horror filmmakers would appear to have two choices: accept a remake assignment that’s almost certain to be widely distributed while sparking inevitable fan resentment, or produce an original film that’s probably destined to go straight to video. (My heart recently went out to the talented filmmaker Kimberly Peirce when it was announced that she would be helming yet another remake of Carrie and that she would be “going back to the book,” which has become the rationalization de jour for remakes. Never mind that Brian De Palma’s Carrie is superior to Stephen King’s novel.) Yes, good horror films are still being made in this country, but they seem to have become a specialty market for people who care enough to see something that hasn’t been announced with a media blitzkrieg.
Filmmaker Ti West hasn’t attracted the audience yet that he deserves, but his integrity and confidence inspire hope that good horror films could potentially become pop-culturally relevant again; his sensibility is a bracing combination of the old and the new that could possibly trick a major studio executive into bankrolling and actively promoting a good movie. The House of the Devil, one of the best horror films of the last decade, is superficially a superb formal recreation of the 1980s horror movies that played on audiences’ fear at the time of being terrorized by Satan worshippers. But the film also gradually revealed a bracingly contemporary subtext of financial desperation. The babysitter in that film was vulnerable to victimization because she was frantic to make ends meet, and her ultimate exploitation by a group of middle-aged men and women almost plays as a subversive black joke on the friction between comfortable baby boomers and their struggling offspring.
The Innkeepers is a companion piece to The House of the Devil. Both films are heavily invested in the relationships young women have with their distinctively strange places of employment, and both are prolonged slow-burns that eventually erupt into poignant anticlimaxes. And while The Innkeepers opens with deceptively casual comedy, it’s ultimately even sadder than The House of the Devil. The Innkeepers features characters that have either given up on their dreams or are on the verge of doing so, with the ending providing little in the way of hope. It’s a story of people gradually succumbing to the deadening monotony of their jobs.
The plot involves a consciously archetypal ghost story. Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) are the remaining clerks at the Yankee Pedlar Inn, a century-old establishment that’s going out of business at the end of the weekend. There’s little to do besides carrying out the occasional formality such as supplying new towels or checking in the rare guest, so Claire and Luke find themselves attempting to fill a great many dead hours. The cute twentysomething Claire is fascinated with encountering the ghost of a woman who was once hidden in the hotel’s basement after supposedly hanging herself, while Luke, on the wrong end of 30, humors her out of a devotion that Claire probably deliberately fails to recognize as romantic.
Like The House of the Devil before it, The Innkeepers doesn’t sound like much on paper, and that’s partially what’s so charming about it. The film is a stubbornly old- fashioned campfire tale that follows Claire and Luke up and down the stairs and corridors of the Yankee Pedlar Inn as they go about their ghost-hunting, encountering the occasional subtly orchestrated scare along the way. But the subtext of failure, resignation, and loneliness, of life inexplicably slipping away, imbues The Innkeepers with surprising emotional weight.
It’s an aesthetic pleasure too. West has an attention to visual detail that allows the Yankee Pedlar Inn, a real place in Connecticut, to become a character in its own right—like the spooky remote residence in The House of the Devil. The film has been lit in chilly and earthy colors that evoke the kinds of eerie photos that ghost hunters often pore over, and unlike a great number of directors in their 20s and 30s, West appreciates the value of conveying character information visually, particularly in regard to how he shoots Claire and Luke. Often discarding dialogue as an awkward crutch, we intuitively understand five minutes into the film the history of the innkeepers’ relationship with one another. And he displays a tenderness toward his leading ladies, practically verboten in this genre, that’s legitimately bracing.
The most encouraging possibility about West is that we probably haven’t seen anything near his best work yet and he’s already established himself as an unusually crafty and humane purveyor of the kind of shocks that potentially startle you more a few days after their meanings have been allowed to sink in a little. The Innkeepers truly earns the word “haunting.”
The Innkeepers has been filmed in such a way as to heighten the eerie New England atmosphere of its setting, as the film is composed of autumnal browns and whites and chilly blues. The trick of transferring a film like this is to preserve the image without cleaning it up too much, as The Innkeepers is clearly meant to be visually reminiscent of older ghost movies such as The Fog. This transfer has managed that feat beautifully: Certain visual details (such as the eerie opening credits) are clearer, but the image still maintains an element of aesthetically appropriate graininess. The sound mix is simply outstanding, so startlingly dense with detail that it may somewhat alter your reaction to the film if you've seen it before (I heard a nearly imperceptible creepy ambient buzzing in certain scenes that I hadn't previously noticed).
The commentaries are unpretentious, straightforward, and a little dry. Casual audiences will probably enjoy the one Ti West recorded with the actors more, as it's logically heavier on anecdotes involving the cast and crew and everyday on-set hijinks. Aspiring filmmakers, unsurprisingly, will find more value in the commentary with West and his second unit director and producers, as it's refreshingly detailed in the actual nuts and bolts of making a low-budget movie. Both are decent enough, but neither are absolute must-hears. The behind-the-scenes featurette is a quick, seven-minute compilation of the kinds of soundbites and on-set footage that one normally expects from this kind of extra; it's not obnoxious, but it's also obviously filler. The film's theatrical trailer is also included.
A beautiful transfer by Dark Sky Films of one of the best horror films of the last few years.