Film review by: Witney Seibold
Ti West‘s “The Innkeepers” is a horror movie, but you wouldn’t guess it at first glance. The setup is boilerplate haunted house stuff: A haunted hotel called The Yankee Pedlar (set in the real-life Yankee Pedlar, supposedly really haunted) is about to close. There is no furniture on the third floor, and only two guests left staying. It is quaint and home-like, and not cavernous or eerie like The Overlook from “The Shining.” There are the usual strange noises and creaky floorboards in this haunted place, but ghosts are not usually properly seen. The hotel is manned by two young people, a girl of about 17 and a boy of about 21, and they have been using tape recorders and cheap cameras to try and record paranormal phenomenon. All familiar so far.
But, looking at the film, you sense a much lighter, conversational tone. Claire (the excellent Sara Paxton) is a bored teenager given to flights of comically neurotic panic about her stalled life, and Luke (Pat Healy) is an equally bored but far more cynical burnout who seems at peace with his stalled life. They are going to lose their jobs when the hotel closes in a few days, and are going to spend their last few nights in the hotel. They occasionally, when the muse strikes them take up a camera or a tape recorder and wander down the halls, idly looking for ghosts. They are not really passionate paranormal investigators. They are young, somewhat lazy enthusiasts.
The bulk of “The Innkeepers” is devoted to the conversations between Claire and Luke. Their banter is easy and natural, and feels like it could have come from a Kevin Smith film. As such, the film is actually light and funny. This is the way haunted house pictures ought to be made. Let us get to know the characters first, then put them in a spooky situation, so we know why they’re there, and why they should, perhaps, remain out of ghostly danger. There is also a Shirley MacLaine-type ex-actress (Kelly McGillis) in the hotel, and she seems to be able to intuit the ghostly presence around her. Claire, wide-eyed and enthused, believes everything the actress tells he about the ghost. Luke, wry and cynical, seems to have affected a kind of hipster nihilism, and while he’s funny and friendly, when pressed, may not actually want to see real ghosts.
The film has its share of Gotcha! moments, as creepy apparitions spring up unexpectedly from the edge of the frame, frightening us. Yes, we do actually see some ghosts, and while it’s fun and spooky, it’s not nearly as nuanced and textured as the dialogue. What Ti West does is, rather than make a big spooky place with impossible twists and cobwebs, allows the dread to creep in subtly around a real-life (feeling) place.
The ending of such stories are rarely satisfying, so the final scenes may not leave you with a sense of supernatural justice/revenge/irony/whatever. But “The Innkeepers” is still way fun. It’s one of those horror movies that reminds you how fun it is to be scared. Remember those? Horror movies that were fun to watch? Y’know, not just gruesome or uncreative retreads of 1980s slasher material? They’re still out there.