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Haunted inn, mixed results
In Ti West’s latest film “The Innkeepers,” slackers-cum-ghost hunters Claire and Luke (Sarah Paxton and Pat Healy) spend their last weekend of employment in a going-out-of-business hotel making a last-ditch attempt to contact its ghoulish inhabitant. This pseudo haunted house film is something of a companion piece to West’s ’80s throwback, “The House of the Devil,” boasting a similarly idiosyncratic take on genre filmmaking.
For starters, neither film relies too heavily on traditional haunted house atmospherics, but a strong sense of place proves vital for West and cinematographer Eliot Rockett. “The Innkeepers” was shot on location in Connecticut at a picturesque East Coast lodge noticeably lacking any hint of menace.
This is precisely West’s aim, however, because much like “The Shining”—to which “The Innkeepers” is immensely indebted—the prospect of horror derives from the unassuming nature of the setting. The film is distinctly devoid of shadows and contrast, and though West doesn’t use depth of field as artfully as Kubrick, the contours of the hotel’s interiors are innocuous and discernible enough to suggest that little more than dust resides within them.
For long stretches of the film, West is content with this. “The Innkeepers” is more of a character study than an outright horror film, with its focus centered on Claire and her quarter-life crisis. Post-grad malaise and a shoddy economic climate have kept her at the hotel. Now that its doors are being shut, her attention gravitates toward finally making contact with the elusive spirit of the hotel as opposed to finding new employment, which would seem to be the more sensible game plan.
Her naivety is similar to the protagonist in “The House of the Devil,” whose desire to sever ties with an inconsiderate roommate leads her to take a shady and vaguely defined babysitting job because it will pay the $600 security deposit on an apartment she wants. Needless to say, things don’t end well for her.
Considering the intertextuality of West’s films, the seemingly boneheaded thought processes of his characters are actually clever samplings of horror genre clichés—“Why is she inspecting that scary noise? Run out the front door, stupid! Call the police!”—he uses to supply his characterization with a contemporary lens. “The Innkeepers” is conspicuously topical, as much about the financial crisis as it is about ghosts.
In fact, as the hotel’s business declines and edges toward the graveyard of similarly shuttered establishments, it literally becomes a ghost town, with only the occasional customer traipsing through its doors. The metaphor is heavy-handed but surprisingly impactful, a refreshing departure from the extreme gore of most modern horror films.
As for the scares themselves, West favors a slow burn. In addition to writing and directing, he also edits his films and is very deliberate in the way he cuts, mixing short and long takes with a hearty focus on temporality.
The story unfolds methodically during the course of a single weekend, with new information parsed out in modest fashion. Inevitably, the curtain is pulled back and all hell breaks loose. But unlike “The House of the Devil,” which did a better job of mining tension, the denouement feels far less earned here. West spends the final third of “The Innkeepers” harvesting scares out of a movie that had less to do with lives being threatened and more to do with lives that weren’t really being lived in the first place.