I’ve noticed that when a filmmaker has the temerity to develop horror movie characters beyond what would be required of them in slashers, which is usually nothing, the films are deemed slow, uneventful, and completely lacking in thrills and chills. Have we lost our ability to care about what happens to these people, to appreciate the anticipation of a scary moment, to savor suspense as it builds to a screaming climax? Genuine terror has been all but overshadowed by immediate gratification; if there isn’t a decapitation or stabbing or throat-slitting every five minutes, it isn’t worth watching. Thank God for directors like Ti West. With his previous film, The House of the Devil, and now with his new film, The Innkeepers, he adheres to the belief that horror movies benefit greatly from slow, almost Hitchcockian cinematic approaches.
Although divided into three chapters and an epilogue, The Innkeepers is not about plot so much as it is about craft, namely the ability to generate apprehension in situations where just about nothing happens. When a young woman sits alone in a darkened room, we find that we’re waiting right along with her – and like her, we have absolutely no idea what we’re waiting for. We do have some pretty good ideas, though. And in those agonizing moments in the darkness, we clench our fists, grit our teeth, grip our armrests, and shut our eyes halfway because we expect that our ideas just might become a reality. Sometimes they do, usually with a reliable but effective pop out scare. Sometimes, we’re left hanging. And yet we’re still frightened because we know the fear will build up all over again in a future scene.
Because the film is not so strict about its plot, there will inevitably be elements that are laughably cliché, not the least of which is the old woman who claims to possess psychic powers. She even has what she calls a pendulum – a cone-shaped crystal attached to a chain. She lets it dangle from her finger as she tries to make contact with the spiritual world, and of course, she makes the vague but grim predictions of doom and gloom. Whether she’s a crackpot or the real deal is not the point. She’s a piece of the atmospheric puzzle. So too is the film’s primary location, a New England hotel built in the nineteenth century and now just days away from closing. And then there’s the hotel’s back story, which involves the legend of a woman who died in one of the rooms; it’s said that her ghost haunts the premises, and that one should never, ever go in the basement.
Central to the film are the title characters, two people who are fascinating solely because they’re developed against our expectations. One is Luke (Pat Healy), a middle-aged man who runs a website dedicated to the hotel’s supposed bouts of paranormal activity. The other is Claire (Sara Paxton), whose age is never revealed but could conceivably be in either high school or college. Because this is the hotel’s final weekend, they have a very limited number of guests. This means that they have to spend those nights there rather than at their homes. This also means that they’re given ample opportunity to develop as characters. The two seem to have a friendly sibling-like relationship, although people are liable to say that most surprising things when they’re drunk. Whereas Luke is laid back and a bit cynical, Claire is a bit more high-strung, which at times makes her seem amusingly adolescent.
In the course of the film, a grand total of four guests will be seen. There’s an angry mom (Alison Bartlett) and her young son (Jake Schlueter), who, according to Luke, are hiding from the woman’s husband. There’s the aforementioned psychic, Leanne Rease-Jones (Kelly McGillis), who was at one time an actress on a TV show Claire adored. And then there’s an old man (George Riddle), who oozes creepiness from every pore. He insists on a room on the third floor, for that was where he and his unseen wife stayed on their honeymoon. It’s a nostalgic visit – one last stay before the hotel closes. He shuffles along with a suitcase in his hand, speaking in short bursts with an unsettlingly low voice.
Strange things have been happening over the past several nights. Perhaps the ghost of the woman is trying to make contact. Claire tries to capture footage with one of those instruments paranormal investigators are typically seen with in movies like this, which is to say I have no idea what it is or if it’s even real. Not that it matters all that much, especially during the final twenty minutes; that’s the point at which the scares happen much more frequently. Despite what we’re shown, the reality of the situation is left a little obscure. The only thing we can truly make sense out of is the epilogue, and even then, it’s based entirely on what we see rather than on what makes sense. Whether or not that was the intention, I’m grateful that The Innkeepers ended with a single shot that maintains the director’s sense of style. To describe it would only ruin the suspense.
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