After entering the horror scene back in 2005 with The Roost, Ti West has been building up his reputation as a master of the slow-burn, finally etching his name into the genre history books with 2009’s House Of The Devil. The film recreates the look and feel of early 80s horror, peppering short intense scenes into the story of a babysitting gig gone wrong that eventually builds to a violent payoff. The Innkeepers, West’s latest film, also focuses on the ordinary, monotonous lives of his characters but this time around, it’s not quite as captivating.
Sara Paxton and Pat Healy star as Claire and Luke, two underachievers stuck in career limbo that work the front desk at The Yankee Pedlar. With the owner on vacation during its final days of operation, the two attendants spend the weekend at the supposedly haunted hotel taking care of the few remaining guests, musing about the good times they’ve shared and searching the building for Madeline O’Malley, the resident spirit. Luke, who spends his free time at the desk watching porn and creating ghost sites, feeds Claire’s imagination with tales of spectral sightings and gets her excited about exploring the building as their last hurrah. Armed with an EVP meter, she picks up voices and piano melodies at first, and is later informed by one of the guests (Leanne Rease-Jones), a television-star-turned-healer, that the basement is where the unfriendly energy is emanating from.
West, who’s not exactly a stranger to horror-comedy (he did direct Cabin Fever 2, even though it ended up not being HIS film), gives Paxton and Healy – the latter of whom is well versed in sketch comedy – some sincerely funny material to work with, creating a very organic relationship between the two. It makes the first half of the film feel like new territory for the director, as it’s definitely the most lighthearted and whimsical film he’s ever made. In that respect, it reminds me a lot of The Hole in that it uses skeptical, innocent characters to explores some very adult issues while presenting itself as something younger viewers can get into, even though that’s really not who it was made for.
The biggest problems with the film emerge when “shit gets real”. Once the tone shifts from light-hearted comedy to balls-to-the-wall horror, it makes the two halves feel like separate films. I can tell what the tone is for both sections, but as a whole it really doesn’t have one; the comedy and horror really don’t flow into each other well. The slow-burn is there to build up sympathy for these everyman and woman characters who are stuck in a terrible economy with no prospects or real ambition to do anything above minimum wage work, but after illustrating the point over and over again for an hour, it’s not particularly interesting. Truthful and accurate? Sure. Completely engaging? Not so much. The final stretch, which is intense due to West’s decision not to show too much, manages to stay creepy and work quite well despite cramming in some common clichés – everyone involved really should’ve known better.
Even though it has some issues, The Innkeepers is a fine film that’s not bad, just kind of disappointing. While not trying to really emulate anything in particular unlike West’s last film, it plods along way too much as it tries to make you identify with its characters and their plight, and ends up spinning its wheels for an hour instead. The performances are great, the comedy and horror work well separately and the payoff is worth the wait, but in the end the whole is not as great as the sum of its parts.