The Innkeepers

The Innkeepers (2011)
★★ / ★★★★

The Yankee Pedlar Inn is no Overlook Hotel, but writer-director Ti West succeeds in making us feel as though we are regulars of the one-hundred-year-old hotel that’s about to go out of business. We learn how it looks from the outside and its neighboring businesses, the location of the front door relative to the front desk, the distance from the staircase to the haunted basement, and the varying vibes between the second and third floors. The filmmaker, who clearly loves horror movies, wishes to familiarize us in this creepy hotel so that when chaos is finally unboxed, we know precisely where characters should run toward for a chance at survival.

Divided into three acts, the middle portion lags. The exposition is a light comedy. We meet hotel attendants Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) as they deal with guests with minimal enthusiasm. When there isn’t much to do, particularly at night, they investigate possible paranormal phenomena in the hotel. Luke runs a website that brings to mind Geocities and Angelfire webpages: nostalgic, funny (clipart and all), and curious (it contains videos of objects, like doors, moving on their own). Claire is happy to help gather content by means of recording strange noises. Word has it that a woman named Madeline O’Malley killed herself at the inn when her fiancé left her at the altar. Naturally, Claire finds her way to the basement.

This section of the picture is quite charming. Although Claire and Luke give off slacker vibes, they are never one-note. I felt the performers’ fondness for their characters, especially when the two relate not just as co-workers but friends. It is also enjoyable to meet the guests: the angry mother (Alison Barlett) and her young child (Jake Ryan), an actress-turned-psychic named Lee (Kelly McGillis), and a sad old man who looks as though he can drop dead at any minute (George Riddle). These supporting characters are memorable not because there are few of them but due to the fact that they are given something interesting to say or do at some point.

However, the second act—the rising action—is mostly a slog to sit through. This is a death sentence for most horror pictures. It isn’t that there is a lack of craft behind the moments that lead up to false alarms and genuine scares. Problematic is a lack of urgency when characters are required to move from one part of the hotel to the other, for instance. Not only do our protagonists move slowly, there is a lack of tension in their bodies. When performers utter lines, the tone is deadpan comic rather than comic on the verge of freaking out. At least three scenes needed to be reshot in order to get the vibe just right. Or perhaps it is also a script issue. There is a way to write funny dialogue when a character is scared. What’s at offer here isn’t it. Furthermore, other than the urban legend, we learn nothing new about O’Malley and the other spirits in the hotel. At times I felt bored.

It is a shame because the third act—the payoff—is strong. Clearly inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining,” I was surprised that although insanity is unfolding, I found my eyes still taking note of the details of the carpet, the wallpapers, the black and white photographs hanging on walls. There is a mesmerizing feeling about it. I found that West is in complete control of the eye-widening visuals, the pulse-pounding score, and the tension that grips us by the throat. It is impossible to look away. Why is this level of filmmaking largely absent during the second act?

I give “The Innkeepers” a marginal recommendation despite its glaring shortcomings. The main reason is there are good scares to be had here. I admired the bitter ending—it doesn’t just end, it lingers. Like a stench. The secondary reason is that love I felt from those in front and behind the camera. When somebody enjoys what they’re doing, it really shows; it makes you want to root for the movie to be better than it ends up being sometimes. Lovers of the horror genre will find something to appreciate here. As for casual audiences, maybe not as much.

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