Ti West is the best-kept secret of modern day's horror landscape, a filmmaker of both unbridled passion and meticulous skill with not a single less-than-impressive motion picture on his filmography. Working with minimalist budgets, he is able to create sucker-punches of breathless mood and tension that put to shame the vast majority of genre efforts released within the major studio system each year. His debut feature, 2005's "The Roost," featured vampiric bats and a lonesome rural barn with the power to still send chills down a person's spine six years removed from having seen it. 2007's "Trigger Man
" brilliantly, chillingly, and methodically turned an innocent daytime hunting trip into a nightmare of all-too-real terror. And 2009's "The House of the Devil
" paid loving, gripping, frightening homage to the "babysitter-in-peril" and "satanic panic" sub-genres of the 1970s and early-'80s with nary a wink in sight. West knows how to conceive terrific ideas, for sureand he still has yet to come close to repeating himselfbut where he really earns points is in his simple, detailed, air-tight delivery of sumptuous atmosphere and suffocating suspense within the deceptively mundane. It's about time more than a handful of devoted fans discovered Ti West's breadth of talent; he's every bit the genuine article as John Carpenter, Wes Craven and Sam Raimi were thirty or more years ago.
With "The Innkeepers," West dips his feet into supernatural waters while, again, remaining in the wheelhouse of what can be believed without too much strain. The limited characters, as real as can be, are not living in a fantastical world, but in our own, grappling with the same questions and internal conflicts as we all sometimes face. For Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy), the last remaining workers left as Connecticut's 100-plus-year-old Yankee Pedlar Inn prepares to close its doors for good, they have no idea what to do next. Juggling twelve-hour shifts while choosing to stay in rooms on the property, Claire and Luke will be newly unemployed once the weekend is over. For now, however, they occupy their time trying to find hard evidence that the hotel is haunted. Legend has it that Madeline O'Malley, a jilted bride who hung herself there many decades before, still lurks about, but is it true? One thing is for sure: a fresh EVP recording would be great for Luke's website about the ghostly goings-on at the Yankee Pedlar.
Shot on location at New England's non-fictional Yankee Pedlar Inn, "The Innkeepers" features an invaluably authentic setting and an equally distinctive triple threat (writer-director-editor) at the helm. If the film does not quite match Ti West's best of the best, this has more to do with the somewhat restricted expansiveness he can bring to said otherworldly material without allowing it to become far-fetched or too silly. There's restraint in what West does, but also an understanding of how to fulfill audience expectations so that his films cannot be accused of being cheats. In the middle of it all are ordinary protagonists whose lives and personalities are filled in through their interactions, conversations and observations. By taking the time to care about Claire and Luke, the viewer is able to more fully invest in the story and what happens to them. It also makes the scares all the sweeter, the threat of horrific possibilities (like one scene involving an opened cellar door) often more nerve-jangling than the more overt physical payoffs.
Sara Paxton (2011's "Shark Night
") is appealingly quirky as the curious Claire, in the midst of doubting her decision to drop out of college and not really needing to hear the snide judgments of Leanne Rease-Jones (Kelly McGillis), an aging actress-turned-mystic staying at the inn while attending a nearby convention. Claire is a fan of Leanne's, which only makes it worse when she snips back at her rather than kindly taking a compliment. For her part, Leanne recognizes her prickly side and attempts, in her own way, to eventually make amends. A discussion the two of them share about life, death, states of being, and the vastness of the universe is altogether more comforting than anything in Terrence Malick's 2011 study in existentialism "The Tree of Life
." Kelly McGillis (2011's "Stake Land
"), once an ingenue back in her "Top Gun" days, has developed into a far more interesting character actress these last few years, lending wisdom, texture and emotional truth to supporting parts. Such is the case with her take on Leanne. As Luke, Pat Healy (2011's "Dirty Girl
") warmly essays the kind of guy who talks himself up more than actually takes action; he and Paxton's Claire share a comfortable short-hand with one another that clicks. There is little doubt that he has a crush on his co-worker, but also the sad-but-honest suspicion that they would never be friends were it not for working together.
"The Innkeepers" is never slow because it's never boring, but Ti West does enjoy extending the quiet spaces in between the horror for maximum effectiveness. It is a style that works exquisitely for an auteur with his expertise. That his films are independently produced, giving him full control over all aspects of the screenplays and their production, is not to be taken for granted, nor are his trusted collaborators, from cinematographer Eliot Rockett's elegant lensing to composer Jeff Grace's (2011's "Meek's Cutoff
") richly foreboding music score to Graham Reznick's complex sound design. The third act of "The Innkeepers" assuredly raises the stakes a notchthe scenes with an elderly man (George Riddle) coming to stay in the room where he once shared his honeymoon with his late wife are pitch-perfectly elusive and poignantand then goes full-tilt, destined to send everyone with a pulse jumping up and recoiling in apprehension. Do the last few beats live up to all that has come before? Not quite, no, but it's the getting-there that's worth sitting up and taking notice. "The Innkeepers" is a beguiling entertainment as it deals out its grab-bag of soul-searching, good-willed humor, and particularly serious gasps.