'The Innkeepers' Is Smart Horror

As Claire thinks through -- and the film shows -- her subjective, isolating, and increasingly frightening experience, you're left to guess if it's "just a story."

The Innkeepers

Director: Ti West
Cast: Sara Paxton, Pat Healy, Kelly McGillis, George Riddle
Rated: R
Studio: Magnet Releasing
Year: 2011
US date: 2012-02-03 (Limited release)
UK date: 2012-06-08 (General release)

"Never skimp on bread. You always regret it." Sensible Claire (Sara Paxton) and dweeby Luke (Pat Healy) are eating sandwiches he's made for them, and she's right, he should never have "bought that cheap bread." They're taking a dinner break during their last weekend working at the Yankee Pedlar Inn, which is about to close down after a century of servicing tourists to a small New Englandy town. The camera cuts from their faces, earnest as they agree on the bread question, to a long, angled shot from the ceiling, to show they're surrounded by empty tables, a few set with silverware, water goblets, and red cloth napkins, the large dining hall lit by a chandelier.

As they eat, they turn back to the subject at hand, the ghost. "What do you think she wants?" Claire asks. Luke is dismissive: "I don't know," he says, "I don't spend my time trying to figure out what women want, especially dead ones."

This much is clear already in The Innkeepers, Ti West's latest scary house movie. If Claire is interested in the people and spirits around her, Luke believes he isn't ("I'm not negative," he explains, "I'm a realist"). And so he's enlisted her to do the work in his project, namely, recording the ghost of Madeline O'Malley, who killed herself in the hotel and then suffered indignity when the innkeeper hid her body in the basement for three days. They divide the last weekend into 12 -hour shifts: Claire spends hers walking the hallways with Luke's EV mic and a de rigueurish flashlight, and he... we don't know what he does, but he seems to sit at the front desk and "troll paranormal forums," occasionally finding videos he can use to make Claire jump.

When she does jump, Claire inevitably reaches for her inhaler, a sign of her vulnerability as the designated girl-in-a-haunted-house as well as her frankly charming particulars. A recent high school grad without plans for a future, she's happy enough to indulge Luke, some 10 years older, if there's an adventure in it. But as he recounts his own purported interactions with the ghost ("The thing about physical encounters is you don’t really remember the details. It's weird, you think you would, but you don’t"), you realize he's talking about real girls and his personal fantasies as much as Madeline O'Malley. Claire misses that part, focused instead on the possibility of recording a spirit: "I can't believe you never had your camera with you!" Yeah, well, he hangs his head.

If Claire doesn't quite see what's in front of her, she is, of course, the conduit for the haunted house's business. And so she helps to bring together Luke's desires, however false, with some others, not quite articulated by a couple of guests for that last weekend. The first is an alcoholic former actor named Leanne Rease-Jones (Kelly McGillis), now working as a medium, and the other a nameless, very sad old man (George Riddle), who requests the suite where he long ago spent his honeymoon. A fan of Leanne's long-since canceled TV series (Like Mother, Like Son), Claire accepts right away her assertion that "There are no endings, there are no ghosts," and that she need only "ignore what your conscious mind tells you and open yourself up" to make contact with Madeline O'Malley. At the same time, when Luke insists the old man can't stay in the room he wants because it's already been stripped, she makes the empathic case: what can it hurt if he gets his wish?

Claire's good sense and kindness make her an obvious victim in this sort of movie. So does her tomboyish cheek (when a mother guest finds Claire has scared her young son with a ghost story, she checks out: "What is the matter with you? He's just a child," she complains, just before she turns to her kid to reassure, "It's not real, it's just a story"). And so does her unawareness of how great she is. Claire wonders when Luke seems "grouchy," not seeing what's at stake for him in their last weekend together. Neither does she get how Leanne might appreciate her enthusiasm, her authenticity, and, especially, her youth. "What do you do?" Leanne asks, wondering whether she might be "an aspiring actress," since she's such "an astute fan of my work." But no, Claire's just "working at the inn."

This by way of explaining how Claire is obliged to "imagine how [Madeline] feels being stuck here." As she insists to Luke, "We've got to get something on tape. It's like a moral imperative." Her pronouncement is goofy and generic, just as Claire's sincerity is both naïve and fateful. And so, when Luke finally makes his awkward-nerd-boy pitch -- "I really like you, Claire, I would do anything for you" -- her response combines what she imagines for him, what Leanne has suggested to her, and also what she feels for Madeline: "Let's go to the basement and find out what that fucking ghost's problem is!"

It's a terrible idea, to go to the basement, a point underlined when they find the lights don't work. This darkness is not only clichéd (and one more opportunity for Luke to impress with his cleverness: "That's a good omen"). It's also thematic and functional. For as no one else in the movie sees what Claire sees, The Innkeepers leaves you uncertain of what you see as well.

As Claire thinks through -- and the film shows -- her subjective, isolating, and increasingly frightening experience, you're left to guess if it's "just a story." Because she's so sympathetic, you're inclined to share that experience, to jump when she jumps, to fear what she fears, to share her sense of what's real. But that very question, what's real, is after all, unanswerable, as well as at the center of most every horror film. This one explores it more subtly than most.


The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Electronic music is one of the broadest-reaching genres by design, and 2017 highlights that as well as any other year on record. These are the 20 best albums.

20. Vitalic - Voyager (Citizen)

Pascal Arbez-Nicolas (a.k.a. Vitalic) made waves in the French Touch electro-house scene with his 2005 debut, OK Cowboy, which had a hard-hitting maximalist sound, but several albums later, Voyager finds him launching into realms beyond at his own speed. The quirky, wallflower vocals and guitar snippets employed throughout Voyager drop a funk that brings to mind WhoMadeWho or Matthew Dear if they had disco-pop injected between their toes. "Levitation" is as pure a slice of dance floor motivation as theoretically possible, a sci-fi gunfight with a cracking house beat sure to please his oldest fans, yet the album-as-form is equally effective in its more contemplative moments, like when Miss Kitten's vocals bring an ethereal dispassion to "Hans Is Driving" to balance out its somber vocoder or the heartfelt cover of "Don't Leave Me Now" by Supertramp. Voyager may infect you with a futuristic form of Saturday Night Fever, but afterwards, it gives you a hearty dose of aural acetaminophen to break it. - Alan Ranta

Keep reading... Show less

It's just past noon on a Tuesday, somewhere in Massachusetts and Eric Earley sounds tired.

Since 2003, Earley's band, Blitzen Trapper, have combined folk, rock and whatever else is lying around to create music that manages to be both enigmatic and accessible. Since their breakthrough album Furr released in 2008 on Sub Pop, the band has achieved critical acclaim and moderate success, but they're still some distance away from enjoying the champagne lifestyle.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.