As a horror fan, I am immune to some of the more hokey tricks employed by many of today’s directors, so coming to The Innkeepers with no knowledge of writer/director Ti West’s previous work (apart from seeing some of the pretty standard posters for his previous horror outings and his awesome IMDB profile photo), I was prepared to be disappointed in the performances and shocks on offer. However I was surprised to find that although the plot followed the usual tropes of the haunted house genre, the knowing (some might say cynical) tone of the film allowed the corniness to become part of its charm. The first scare sets up the mood in a similar way to The Cabin In The Woods (shit, that was scary, hang on, no it wasn’t, tee hee) so you know what you’re in for from the get-go.
The story is set during the last weekend before the Yankee Pedlar Inns closure. There are few guests and only two staff on duty; Luke (Pat Healy – Magnolia, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) and Claire (Sara Paxton – Last House on the Left, Superhero Movie). The pair are eager to get documentary evidence of the ghost of Madeline O’Malley, said to haunt the New England Hotel (as we know, ghosts only exist in the US in New England) to post on the web.
So far, so obvious. However, there is more to the film than a tired rehash of the recent glut of found footage ghost stories. The pair have only an EVP recorder with which to get their proof, which frees the audience from anxiously searching static night-vision frames, instead making you listen very closely, and allowing West to place the camera where he likes, which effectively builds the tension ready for the final payoff.
The two leads have an easy chemistry and the banter between them flows naturally. Making them a pair of cynical hipsters brings a knowing edge to the use of genre staples, as illustrated during their mockery of the psychic healer staying at the hotel (Kelly McGillis – Top Gun, Witness and more recently Stakeland) as well as the obvious signposting of actions that will have grave consequences later. When the actual frights begin, both leads react believably and the knowing tone of the film allows you to forgive them for doing exactly what they were warned against. After all, if they don’t go down to the basement, how are we going to get to the final shocks?
My only criticism would be that the climactic scene is short lived. After an hour and 20 minutes of building a heightened sense of tension, a more sustained chain of frights would have been in order to give the story the pay-off it deserved. However there are enough scares along the way that this is a minor complaint.
Few haunted house films can deliver real shocks and although on occasion The Innkeepers comes close, it doesn’t quite get there. However, the performances and the tone undercut the use of some of the more obvious genre devices to ensure there is more to recommend it than simple frights. Even if you feel like you’ve had it up to here with ghost stories, it’s still worth a watch.