Ti West’s The Innkeepers is a brisk, creepy little thriller, despite the fact that nothing much of significance happens for the first 90 minutes. It’s like the twin brother of West’s fascinating The House of the Devil (2009), a film that builds its scares with mood and quiet, instead of false jumps and musical stingers. Few horror movies any more have me sitting on the edge of my seat, but The Innkeepers somehow managed to do it, and do it well. I have a suspicion that, based on these two films, West may well be the new horror auteur.
The plot of The Innkeepers has all the complexity of a basic mathematical sum: Sara Paxton and Pat Healy play Claire and Luke, two slackers left to tend to the remaining guests of the Yankee Pedlar Inn, a relic hotel set to shutter its doors in a few days. Luke is a certified ghost fanatic, obsessed with reportedly true sightings of paranormal activity, which he meticulously details on his website. He claims to have seen the specter of Madeline O’Malley, a jilted bride who strung herself up by the loose end of a rope in one of the rooms many decades ago. Claire buys in to Luke’s claims, partly out of naiveté, but mostly from ennui. They spend hour on hour doing nothing but surfing the internet and wandering around the inn, boredom heavy on the air, or conversing in brief pockets about nothing in particular, as if their words might magically move the minute hand on the clock faster. As employees, they have little to attend to; aside from a woman and her young child, the only other guest is the mysterious Leanne Rease-Jones (Kelly McGillis), a failed actress now apparently deep into alcoholism. Occasionally, Claire and Luke walk around the vastly empty inn with a sound recorder, trying to catch the voices of ghosts. Soon, Claire thinks she picks up something — a piano playing with no player, thumps and bumps in the night — which Luke is quick to discount. She enlists the help of Leanne, who claims to be a medium of sorts, but Leanne seems spooked in her own right.
What Claire discovers and how it impacts her sanity I’ll let rest here, because the The Innkeepers is not about its slim story, but the mood used to tell it. West seems to have a firm grasp on the fact that the best ghost stories unfold quietly. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced so much silence in a horror film. West wisely gives the Inn a sense of cavernous space for Claire to move through, poking her microphone into corners and shadows, its hallways lit in ghastly yellow; often I was reminded of the interiors of the Overlook Hotel. The suspenseful moments, of which there are many, tend to linger with the expectation of a sudden fright that never comes. There’s a terrifically eerie sequence where Claire convinces Luke to go with her to the basement, and they sit on the floor simply listening, their flashlights causing shadows to dance in every direction. When an old man shows up to book a very specific room for the night, he has the creepy sort of dead-eyed gaze of a zombie, his words coming in flat tones, as if he were already half way to death. There are a few early jump scares, but they arrive tongue-in-cheek, like when Luke tries to gently announce his presence to avoid scaring Claire, all to no avail. West wants us to know he clearly understands the genre he’s working in. He gets the point that anticipation is half the game, and atmosphere is the rest of it. I got the feeling I was watching the work of someone finally trying to break down the long-sturdy barrier of horror cliche.
I have a few minor quibbles. Things take a mite too long to get started, although the film generally moves at a good pace. And I wasn’t entirely convinced by Paxton’s performance as Claire at the outset — it all seemed a little too rehearsed, a little too pat — but she quickly grew on me as she fell more organically into the role. I do suspect that diehard horror junkies might be put off by the film’s lack of shocks and gore, and the deliberate pace. But those looking for a quieter, more sophisticated ghost story should be well rewarded. This is a nice, moody little movie.