Director Ti West has become something of a cult sensation in recent years among the horror film-going crowd, beginning with his 2009 genre pastiche The House of the Devil. That film was consummately effective, if less than ethereal or skin-crawling. Nonetheless, it worked, and a film that takes all of its skill and put it out on the screen simply for the purpose of working these days is rare. But with The Innkeepers, West really proves his credentials as a horror filmmaker worth following, emerging out of his shell of repackaging horror to truly creating it.
As with many horror movies that work, The Innkeepers works primarily due to its atmosphere. This is a subdued film that emphasizes the tease over the money shot. It understands that what is implied works more effectively than what is shown. And this isn’t to say that it sacrifices impact for a sort of intellectual focus on the technique of teasing and limiting what audiences see: it is this very technique which allows the film to play well with the lights on in the head and to shoot straight for the bone. This is a slow-moving motion picture where every scene builds on and comes from the previous one. There are moments of humor to break the ever-increasing dread, but dread wins out in the end, as it always does, and as it should.
To some extent, the film is all in its title. This is a ghost story, sure, but it’s really a story about two lonely people who come together over the shared mundanity of life. Its two main characters are Clair (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy), two generally bored employees (seemingly the only two) of Connecticut’s long-past-its-prime Yankee Pedlar Inn. This place is, pun likely intended by West, a ghost of its former self. The only joy the two get out of their jobs, and perhaps the reason why they took them in the first place, is prying around the inn for evidence to prove the long-rumored haunted inn stories the place is famous for. Naturally, and ghoulishly slowly, signs begin to point to the ghosts being equally lonely.
West’s slow-build actually allows him another unexpected bonus: time to develop the characters in ways a movie more interested in immediate gratification might not. Most notably, Claire is an anxious, flawed, but likable individual slowly coming undone by the combination of nerve-wrecking dread and never-ending boredom brought on by a menial day job. We get the sense that she, like her coworker, only accepted her job because it was a means to pursue a hobby that was increasingly taking control of her. She’s quirky but, functionally, an everywoman, someone who we can sympathize with, but who we also come to understand and explore. She’s our eyes and ears in the Yankee Pedlar, and this grants the film a sense of ambiguity as well; we’re not ever entirely sure whether what we are viewing is “really” happening or whether Claire is imagining it. Either way, it’s happening to her in one form or another, and as the film presents it, this makes it meaningful and real. She and coworker Healy also develop a nice relationship throughout the film. To most people, they remain servants, and there are nice implications about how society has rendered them ghosts. The film doesn’t make things explicit (or even hint) that they are literally spectres, but with the question of the reality of the ghosts so central to the film to begin with, it’s a nice subtext that we see the light tragedy of the two characters turning to ghosts largely because the world passes by without noticing them. In some sense, they fit in with the less-than-populated inn than the outside world. Above all, the first half of the film, even the first two-thirds, plays less like conventional horror and more like a two-character indie drama than anything else.
To this purpose, West intentionally makes the Pedlar seem barren; few people pass through the camera’s lens throughout the film. We see some people enter the hotel or leave, but we never follow them; we don’t know what they are doing because Claire and Healy don’t. They aren’t interested, preferring to occupy their time with the dead rather than the living, and their jobs, which emphasize caring for the physical needs of temporary guests but knowing that they will soon check out and leave them forever, don’t afford for it. These guests pay them no heed, and perhaps, in this mundane normal life a wandering of the mind begins; the seeds are sown for individuals who, feeling unfulfilled and increasingly uninterested in life and the normal turn to the abnormal, and above all, death, for respite. After all, the ghosts they seek to understand are their long-term companions, the only others who continually reside in the hotel and never leave them. As the film progresses and we see the living and the dead bleed into each other, losing grasp of who is controlling who We’re aware that West has a master’s grasp of the surreal, uncanny nature of horror films and the way they affect by bridging the mundane and the supernatural.For all its ghosts and ghouls, Innkeepers is as much a story about the loneliness and mundane nature of life, and the relationships, both with the living and the dead, which emerge.
Although it lacks the directorial craftsmanship and delicious ambiguity of something like, for instance, The Shining, a clear influence here, this is a superior horror production. It’s not quite the descent into madness it could have been, but it doesn’t aspire to me, and it gets the job done in a confident and unhurried way, seeming more comfortable with the films low-key attitude. Part of the reason West works so well for this kind of film is that he emphasizes subtle, deceptively simple, shots which allow the film to unfold at its own pace, rather than emphasis on flashy or unique shots which work on their own terms but don’t necessarily enhance the atmosphere of the film as a whole. He understands that each shot is part of a larger tapestry, and he constructs the film accordingly, never calling attention to what he is doing and making his ability to unravel his character’s minds all the more unnerving. It also gives the film a sense of place: the Yankee Pedlar feels real. It’s mundane on the surface, of course, but that’s part of the brilliance of the film; we know something is up, but West won’t let us know what it is. He instead coerces us to question ourselves, see things even when they aren’t there, and instill in ourselves the feeling of dread he as the filmmaker is supposed to. Like a slithering puppet master, he waits and slowly brings us under his control without allowing us to realize what he’s doing, letting his shots speak for the narrative rather than the other way around. What he sacrifices in memorable moments, then, he makes up for with overall feeling.
In the simplest possible terms, I will say perhaps the best, most basic thing I can meaningfully say about the film, or in a sense, literally any film: it works primarily and precisely because West knows how to make a film where the very way in which each shot functions and links together forms the basis of the story and the film. Every shot feels like it’s there with purpose and clarity of vision, composed just so, with a painterly precision, to make the film feel just right, just uneasy enough to enhance dread without becoming self-indulgent. That’s good filmmaking, and this is a good film.