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Rick McGrath [Film Festival 10.30.11] review horror

Year: 2011
Directors: Ti West
Writers: Ti West
IMDB: link
Trailer: link
Review by: Rick McGrath
Rating: 8 out of 10

Given the oceans of blood and guts that usually float many of today’s ships of horrors, it’s sometimes positively refreshing to simply check into a big old hotel and feel your skin crawl from something as quaint and retro as an old-fashioned ghost story.

The Innkeepers is a clever and delicately-wrought piece of storytelling that is impressive in its ability to slowly wind up the spring of suspense, but not quite so impressive in its ultimate scary visual payoff. Fans who need a steady succession of shocks and awes will probably not be pleased. However, if you like a long, slow burn with the bonus of being pleasantly amused by appealing, yet slightly oddball characters along the way, then you might find a room at this Inn to your liking.

Our story is centered around Luke and Claire, two unambitious workers in an unambitious old hotel called The Yankee Pedlar. Caveat emptor. Claire’s a tomboyish cutie seemingly unaware of her appeal; Luke’s a computer nerd with Ed Grimley hair too afraid to tell Claire of his feelings for her. It’s the hotel’s last weekend of operation and with only a couple guests the two end up amusing themselves recounting the story of the building’s ghost, the dumped-at-the-altar Madeline O’Malley, who committed suicide in her room but who was left in the basement for a couple days afterwards. Bad things happened. Luke apparently has seen the apparition and has built a website about the unhappy spirit, which impresses Claire, and the plot thickens when one of the guests, Leanne Rease-Jones, a retired TV star turned psychic healer, reveals in a trance that there is evil afoot, and it emanates from the (dum-da-dum) basement.

From this point on, it’s all just slow burn until Claire finally wraps her silly little hand on the basement doorknob… alone. If you like being paid to wait, the healthy dividend writer/ director/ editor Ti West gives you is a clever, well-paced comedy/ drama that not only binds you emotionally to the two likeable characters, but plants the ever-growing seeds of knowledge that contribute to the overall suspense and growing dread of what the future will reveal. In fact, it’s the damn feeling of dread that West seems most interested in developing, as the actual payoff, while certainly shocking, is undervisualized and very brief.

Overall, the acting is excellent. Kelly McGillis is steady as Leanne Rease-Jones, the slightly soused spirit susser, and Pat Healy is perfect as the asexual foil to Sara Paxton’s pert and bouncy take on Claire, who, in her youthfully dumb enthusiasm actually wants to discover the reason why Madeleine is haunting the joint. Healy and Paxton achieve a lot of on-screen empathy in their roles, and a great deal of that likeability is a function of West’s entertaining yet naturalistic script. It’s part of the sense of foreboding that what once seems fun and adventuresome is the same that later strikes fear and terror.

This bifurcation twixt fun and frenzy is also represented in West’s choice of how we see things – either in bright light or deep darkness. Unlike houses, hotels don’t shut off their lights at night, and while we know something is going to happen, it’s easier to postpone that inevitable if our heroes are bantering about in well-lit hallways, rooms and lobby. The basic interiorness of this story is so pronounced, in fact, that like in Los Vegas you soon lose track of time and only know if it’s day or night by going outside. It’s part of the subtle sense of transition in The Innkeepers that we imperceptibly move from brights to darks as the story progresses. That the brights deal with the present and the darks with the past is also noticed. Nothing represents the future for these two barely-employables, however. Luke has his own little secret to conceal, and Claire is one of those unwitting dummies who simply can’t resist going and going and going into dark and uninviting places. West’s ability to painstakingly set up these specific moments for their maximum effect is unerring – I know what’s going to happen and I swear I still felt that creepy skin crawl on my arms and neck. Jeez -- has she never seen a scary movie before? Don’t go there!

All this, of course, is a function of our emotional involvement with the Claire character, and thanks to West’s creation and Paxton’s portrayal, you’d have to be a heartless bastard not to be concerned for her… OK, protective. Even so, there is an argument to be made that West has perhaps fetishized the slow burn in The Innkeepers, and that it may just be too lighthearted and comic for too long, given the intense but rather abrupt ending. And given the possibilities of an ancient Inn – the movie was shot in a real hotel – it’s odd West stayed in chiché-ville by setting his money shots in (yawn) a normal bedroom, bathtub, and basement room. Or, perhaps he wanted his sets as ordinary as his characters. In opposition to this lack of flash, special mention must be made of Jeff Grace’s extraordinary soundtrack. It’s as lyrical as the delicate and subtle action, and at the appropriate moments it adds more to the overall mood than the visuals, which generally aren’t that creepy, although the situation is.

There’s a lesson here. Amateur ghost-hunters who should be stocking rooms with towels and manning the front desk should stick to their work if they want to get ahead. Otherwise they may have it handed to them. The Innkeepers. It’s not a perfect movie, but it’s unusual insofar as you’re charmed before you’re dreaded. How much you like West’s emphasis on each will dictate if you rebook your room.

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