The Innkeepers is another strong entry from Ti West in a slowly building indie genre career. His previous film, The House of the Devil, was a hallmark of style and tone, perfectly capturing the mood and look of a late 60s or early 70s horror movie, but doing so subtly with an understated reverence versus the kind of over-the-top retro kitsch attack we’ve seen lately from bigger-budget projects. The House of the Devil was so well-done and so accurately made that you could easily run across it on late night television and not guess that it was a recent production if you didn’t know anything about the film or didn’t recognize actor Tom Noonan. And it takes place in an earlier time period, one before cell phones where college students were at the mercy of pay phones and loose change. The House of the Devil spends a lot of time building the tone and mood of its chosen purview; but despite its understated approach, it’s never boring, and instead benefits from a slow, natural build of tension and dread. And the biggest kudos I can give it– unlike a lot of genre films, the film has an intelligence behind it and is obviously the product of a director who is both smart and skilled, a rare commodity these days in a genre that has largely been corrupted by blind and thoughtless nostalgia-fetishization and regurgitaton.
Most of The Innkeepers builds on that promise. It hasn’t been as successful with audiences as other recent horror fare probably because it spends a lot of the running time with the two lead characters, building their relationship, exploring their characters, and setting the tone and mood of their situation. Namely, that Claire and Luke are the remaining two employees working at the Yankee Pedlar Inn during its final week open, while the owner is off on an early vacation. The Pedlar, one of those local hotels that has been around for a century, hasn’t been able to thrive in the days of national chains catering to familiarity and convenience. The Pedlar shows its age, and the furniture and accoutrements in the hotel are several years, if not decades, old. Claire is a lost and confused twenty-something, intelligent enough but not really sure about the direction she wants to take. Luke is cut from a similar cloth, except that he’s ten to fifteen years older and probably past the point of being able to pull his life together. For the most part, he’s settled into a lifetime of ambition-less apathy. To keep himself busy, he’s been building a very low-rent website about th Yankee Pedlar Inn and the rumors of its historic ghost hauntings. In this final week of the hotel being open, Luke and Claire are splitting all of the shifts, taking rooms in the hotel to sleep when they need to get some rest.
But where some contemporary audiences are so wired into needing constant jump scares and ratcheted-up pacing and editing, The Innkeepers forsakes that for a slower style more in keeping with its location and its small-town characters. And that’s what gives it so much of its charm. While many of these older hotels do still exist all across the country, and probably most of them have their share of ghost stories, the lion’s share of the time in such hotels is spent wondering about their stories, talking about them, waiting for them. And in that sense, The Innkeepers is a much more honest and truthful ghost story that most, because it accurately captures what it’s truly like to want to see something, and to wait for it, and then when the moment finally does come, how we realize that maybe we don’t actually want to see something after all.
The Innkeepers has a lot of charm to it, and an affection for its characters and its location. But it’s unfortunate that the third act does drop the ball somewhat. Without giving anything away, there are insinuations that there’s something more going on with the local ghost, and that there may be more to the story. There may be more spirits in the hotel than just Madeline O’Malley, and with a more nefarious purpose. However, the promise of this third-act build, which is really what the film needs to deliver the goods going into the home stretch, is never fulfilled. There’s a possible interpretation that would answer the questions, but its an understated solution that isn’t really reached by the narrative of the film or spelled out in a way that will likely connect with most audiences. And even if it did, it’s in no way a satisfying ending or conclusion. No, what the film needs in that final act is an evolution of its mythology, something to chase away the doldrums of waiting to see a ghost with the pure terror and realization of evil. And that’s not something that manifests. Instead, we get a very simple, predictable ending that is in keeping with the heavy character-focus and mood-setting of the rest of the picture, but not something that builds off of the promises hinted at in the dialogue or the hotel’s history.
Still, most of the work here from West and his cast is both intelligent and natural, and a welcome counterpoint to a lot of what we’ve been getting from the big Hollywood machine. The Innkeepers serves to reaffirm West’s potential, even if it may finally fail to deliver or capitalize on it. But for fans of West and those who can appreciate a story that takes its time to build itself up, it’s worth a watch, and should whet the appetite for more from a developing director who will ultimately break out into the mainstream in a big way when the time is right. His latest work, part of the anthology film V/H/S that was a favorite at Sundance, may help be that launchpad when that film hits its national release, hopefully later in 2012.