Note on reviews: I try not to spoil what I would consider major plot revelations in any of my reviews, but I do like to talk about movies in a way that would be meaningful to someone who has seen the film. Thus, assume there are probably more spoilers than you’d find in, say, the trailer for any given film.
I have a love/hate relationship with horror movies. They are the genre that probably got me into movies, something I would devour endlessly as a child and young teen, up late at night nearly every weekend to watch bad horror movies on cable stations. As I grew up, though, horror seemed to mostly lose its appeal. Part of it was that I saw the seams more, understood the formula. Part of it was the rise of the post-modern slasher with Scream, that mocked the thing I grew up loving while still carrying it on with the same basic formula. Part of it was the rise of ‘extreme’ horror, which is fine enough but never touched me in the same way.
I had more or less given up on being ‘into horror’ until two years ago when I sat down and put on a disc that someone had recommended. That movie was House of the Devil, from director Ti West. And that movie singlehandedly reminded me why I love horror movies. So it was with no small mount of hype that I walked into his latest movie, another horror movie by the name of The Innkeepers. Would this movie achieve the same magic? Would it remind me what I love about the genre? And better yet, would it be equally genius in how subtle its scares were?
The Innkeepers is the story of two employees of the Yankee Pedlar Inn, a run down hotel that is seeing its last weekend in business. The employees, Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) spend most of their time being shiftless and hanging out together. But they’re also deeply interested in ghosts, specifically the ghost that supposedly haunts the Yankee Pedlar of a woman who died there long, long ago. They are spending this last weekend, with the boss out of town and the rooms mostly empty, making one last pass with their recorder to try to catch some evidence of the ghost before the whole place is closed off and torn down.
The trick of The Innkeepers is the trick of many of the classics of horror: for most of the movie, nothing at all happens. The movie spends a lot of time just living with Claire and Luke. Claire obviously looks up to Luke, who is painfully obviously into Claire despite her ignorance. Luke tries his best to act cool, building a website about their hotel and its resident ghost and telling a vaguely fake-sounding story about how he once encountered the ghost, told over them sitting in an otherwise empty hotel dining room eating lunch. The entire first third of the movie, almost utterly scare free outside of some fairly obvious and tongue-in-cheek jump scares, is devoid of anything remotely resembling horror, instead just putting us in the world of these two people, almost entering the realm of indie romcom, aimless 20-somethings and their frustrated ambitions.
A person who comes into this movie expecting a scare a minute is, at this point, going to be very disappointed. But what this movie remembers, and so many often forget, is that making likable characters matters. Claire and Luke are protagonists that you want to see be happy and figure their shit out. You kind of hope they achieve their stated goals of seeing their ghost, but at the same time genuinely don’t want them to pay the price that that will probably cost them. It is something almost wholly forgotten in horror storytelling, the idea that maybe, just maybe, if you give a single shit about the people in the story they won’t just be bodies to annoy and then die, but people you empathize with. As much as I appreciate the rest of the movie, it’s those scenes that endear it to me.
Of course, things do go bad, and slowly the hotel begins to turn more and more terrible as their investigations continue. Anyone with any experience in horror knows how these scenes go, and the movie plays out respectful of the fact that this is probably not your first movie. Many of the obvious scares don’t pay off, and it serves to only ratchet up the tension. Ti West knows, better than seemingly any horror director I’ve ever seen, that a movie is at its scariest when something should happen and doesn’t. Long shots of hallways that do nothing. Rounding corners to see that nobody’s there. Opening doors into empty rooms that stay empty even when you flick on the light or cut to a shot of the protagonist. Horror movies are like sex: the payoff is good, sure, but the foreplay is what really matters.
This is helped with seemingly no interest in CG and some amazing sound work. Much of the scares are atmospheric, an old run down hotel with characters holding a microphone and wearing a headset to record paranormal activity. The way that the movie puts us in the sounds they hear, recorded or not, and how it seamlessly transitions between the two is a marvel of sound design. They say 80% of a jump scare is in the sound, but that’s also true of the long stretches of dread, the moments where nothing happens but the noises and the music combine to give the palpable sense that something is or will soon be very wrong.
So when the ghosts do arrive, extremely late into the movie, it’s almost a sense of relief. The movie is the slow build of pressure, unbearably so at times, and I often found myself cringing in my seat and trying very hard to fight the urge not to look. But of course I had to look, because looking away would be just as bad, not knowing or seeing the danger that I knew lurked around every corner. By the time the hand was fully tipped, it was with a palpable sense of relief. Ghosts might be frightening, but once they’re seen they’re quantifiable. The nothings become somethings, and that’s always much easier to cope with than the great, evocative question mark.
Needless to say I think The Innkeepers is a pretty good movie, and maybe even a great haunted house movie the likes of which only seem to show up every few years (I’d count The Others, or arguably The Orphanage as the last great one). It does what it does very well, with a relentless ramping up of tension that is only rivaled by West’s prior feature. The Innkeepers isn’t The House of the Devil, to be clear, it never reaches the same highs but it also doesn’t have such ridiculous camp moments. It’s a more even film, wonderful in its own unassuming way.