Even before you get to the movie, the DVD for writer/director/editor Ti West’s The Innkeepers already sets itself apart in an entertaining way. The screen just before the main menu features a message from producers of the disc, urging you to play it loud. This throwback to ‘80s metal albums, prodding listeners to pump up the volume, does a few things right out of the gate. It makes you smile, immediately drawing you into what is a fun, well put together package, and it readies you for the nostalgic nature of the film you are about to see.
West’s previous film, House of the Devil, was a homage to babysitter-in-trouble subgenre of horror that was popular in bygone decades. The Innkeepers operates in a similar manner, only this time West takes on the ghost story as his model.
The Innkeepers is not a self-aware genre tribute, like a Scream or, more recently, Cabin in the Woods. Instead of wallowing in nerdiness and obscure minutiae, West crafts a simple, spooky, no-frills tale that both stands alone as an individual work, and plays into the overall tradition.
The Yankee Peddler Inn is going out of business. The building, long rumored to be haunted, has one more weekend left, few guests, and is staffed solely by Claire (Sara Paxton, Shark Night 3D) and Luke (Pat Healey, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Fort). Amateur ghost hunters, the two take turns at the desk, keeping an eye out for signs of wayward spirits, while the other sleeps in an unoccupied room upstairs. As a selection of eerie guests cycle through the hotel, things start to get weird. Are these true signs of haunting, or are the paranoia and proclivities of Claire and Luke simply making them see things that aren’t there?
The Innkeepers is a steady, deliberate build, depending on one gradual, long-lasting chill rather than momentary jumps and easy frights. The suggestion at the beginning of the DVD is apt, as everything, especially the sound design, melds together to create an atmosphere fraught with tension and suspense. The sinister history of the place, the subtle, strange music, long slow takes, and more, combine to flawlessly set the stage. You’re likely to find yourself leaning further and further forward as the movie progresses, pulling you closer and closer. West’s film is the kind of horror that leaves most of the heavy lifting to your imagination, getting the absolute most out of a small budget, single setting, and limited resources.
The biggest part of why The Innkeepers works as well as it does is the characters. Claire is adorably meek and geeky, so earnest about the task at hand, and Luke is older, jaded, and you’re unsure of his dedication (he can’t even be bothered to bring a camera), and actual motivations. He’s the kind of guy who works the desk at a hotel but still looks at the guests with an unsubstantiated sense of superiority. The personas are well developed—the deeper you go, the more you see—and Paxton and Healy are spot on in their performances. Both are personable, relatable, and even when you may not like one or the other, you feel for them and understand where they’re coming from.
It doesn’t hurt matters that West has an impeccable sense of timing. Every reveal about his characters and their situation comes right at the perfect point. The Innkeepers is remarkably well structured, and while the pace is thoughtful and unhurried, the pace and tempt are anything but slow.
The Innkeepers is a quiet, low-key bit of horror that plays off of everything that comes before it. A comparison to The Shinning feels unavoidable, as West’s low-angle camera lens swoops through the muffled hallways of the hotel, but his film—less meticulous and fussy—is its own entity, and he crafts a startlingly effective ghost story. To call The Innkeepers haunting is too cheesy, even for me, but the story certainly sticks with you, lingering long after the movie is over.
As indicated above, the DVD release of The Innkeepers is a nice little package. The extras start out with a seven-minute long look behind the scenes, but like the film itself, this ends up familiar and different at the same time. There is talk about how the Yankee Peddler, an actual New England hotel, is actually rumored to be haunted, and how West wrote the script specifically for this setting. At one point he says that if they weren’t able to shoot at the Peddler, he would have trashed the script, it is that particular to the building. Everyone, cast, crew, etc, stayed in the actual hotel, giving the set a sort of extended college party vibe, and part of the feature deals with the various dogs who also stayed on set with their owners. This slightly left field approach is both fitting for The Innkeepers, and makes this extra more entertaining than the norm.
Two, count them two, commentaries round out the bonus material on The Innkeepers DVD. One is West with producers Peter Phok and Larry Fessenden, and 2nd unit director/sound designer Graham Reznick. The other is West and stars Paxton and Healy. Everyone’s enthusiasm, especially West’s, comes blazing through, and these are both totally worth your time.