There is always something at least a little bit likable in a sincerely made horror movie. We all saw American Movie, right? It was pretty clear that Coven was going to turn out pretty bad, but the way the guys in the documentary were so committed to trying to tell a good scary story, it was hard not to pull for them to at least get a shot at it.
Writer/director Ti West isn't as misguided regarding his own talents as the guys in American Movie--in other words, he really has some--but he does appear to be as genuine in his desire to chronicle the cinematic tales of things that go bump in the night. Like 2009's The House of the Devil, last year's The Innkeepers is a low-budget, carefully planned indie horror movie. I never saw Devil, so I can't say how they compare, but from all I've heard, the sincerity of the effort was a big sell of that feature. It goes a long way for The Innkeepers, too, just not far enough.
What we have here is a pretty basic haunted house story--though in this case a haunted hotel. The Yankee Pedlar has seen better days. Two clerks are working around the clock on the establishment's final weekend. Luke (Pat Healy, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) is a smarmy ghost hunter with a Tintin haircut. He has been trying to document the Pedlar's supernatural activity for a website he is building. Caught up in his stories of the woman who died waiting for her lover more than a century prior is Luke's co-worker, Claire (Sara Paxton, Shark Night 3D). She is easily susceptible to suggestion, and since the hotel only has two occupancies, she has plenty of time to go looking for spooky stuff.
Which she finds. Maybe. The Innkeepers smolders on an extended slow burn. There's a lot of talk of ghosts and several false alarms before things start to go really wonky. It's a technique that can work: lull your audience into an unsuspecting calm before walloping them with the frights. In some cases, like the Paranormal Activity franchise, the trick is that the movie leading up to that point is pretty bad, and so you're ready for some action. The problem with The Innkeepers is that the film is constantly on the cusp of getting good, so the fact that it never even manages to illicit the shivers and shakes you signed on for is a real bummer.
The Innkeepers is a tough movie to criticize, because, outside of its languid pace, there's really no determining factor for why it's not a more involving piece of cinema. Ti West's writing is very good. He's got a solid structure here, an operating knowledge of ghostly tropes, and a strong ear for dialogue. His leads get on well together and they trade jibes and personal confessions with equal skill. There's something affable about both of them. You should be rooting for them to get out alive. Their workplace also provides West with an inherently creepy confined space to terrorize them in. Rundown, nearly abandoned hotels are always going to be more than a little foreboding. So much sadness, so many shadows, a ghoul could be hiding anywhere.
There are definitely a few obvious attempts to get us to jump in our seats in The Innkeepers, but they are just too small to make any difference. West is trying to maximize his small budget by showing less, but he never makes more out of it. As I said at the outset, The Innkeepers is a sincere enough effort that I can't bring myself to hate it, but it's too milquetoast for me to ever love it. The cover art for the Blu-Ray is scarier than the movie itself...but then, I can't recall that landscape even being in the movie. What's up with that?
The widescreen transfer--1080p/AVC-encoded--is exceptionally sharp and takes full advantage of the technology to deliver a well rendered and good looking horror movie experience. The Innkeepers was shot on film and the Blu-Ray maintains the cinematic texture we expect from a movie seen in the theatre. Grain is nicely controlled, but not overly persistent. Tone and texture look good, with natural skin and textiles. Some of the old-school blood effects might suffer a little due to the clarity, but not too bad if you're willing to go with the spirit of the thing.
The start of The Innkeepers suggest you play the movie with the volume turned up loud, and this is very good advice. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track has a lot going on--including excellent silences, which is important for when the audio effects really start to boom. My cat was sleeping on warm laundry and the movie woke her up at least three times with a sudden audio blast. That's saying something, because she sleeps through my shenanigans all the time. The Innkeepers has real atmosphere, and much of the creep factor that Ti West does manage to manufacture definitely comes from the aural design.
Two commentaries lead the extras, both featuring director Ti West. The first is more of a production-driven discussion, as it also features the movie's producers, Peter Phok and Larry Fessenden, and West's 2nd unit director and sound man, Graham Reznick. The second is the chattier commentary, with West sharing memories with his two lead actors.
There is also a short behind-the-scenes feature and the theatrical trailer. Both are in HD.
The Innkeepers is a well-made film. It's got a solid script, looks good, and is driven by strong lead performances. The problem is this slow-burning ghost story never really catches spark, and so it's never really scary. Set on the last weekend in a hotel that has more history than it has customers, this directorial effort from Ti West takes its time putting the pieces in place, but then doesn't really have much to do with them once they are. It's a commendable effort, made with a clear intention, but ultimately coming to very little. Rent It.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with JoŽlle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the comedy series Spell Checkers, again with Jones and artist Nicolas Hitori de. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.