The Innkeepers (2012), the newest horror movie from director Ti West, combines the world view of Kevin Smith’s landmark working-class comedy Clerks (1994) with the precise visuals of Stanley Kubrick’s glacial, blood-freezing The Shining (1980) and emerges, rather commendably, as a new genre masterpiece.
West’s previous film, House of the Devil (2008) was one of the finest horror films of its year because West slowly, methodically, and determinedly generated an atmosphere of escalating, suffocating tension and anxiety. He repeats that accomplishment to great effect in The Innkeepers, unexpectedly transforming what could easily be a shaggy dog story into an impressive character piece that reminds the audience of the fact that we’re all connected, and that death is inevitable.
That very vibe has been picked up, developed, and updated well in The Innkeepers, particularly in the depiction of the two lead characters: hotel clerks at the soon-to-be-closed Yankee Pedlar Hotel. Sara Paxton plays Claire, a fetching young woman of admirable intelligence and wit who is nonetheless wasting time at a dead-end job. She tells a guest in the house she is “between stuff,” and that description suits the character and her ennui perfectly. Claire could indeed write her ticket, if she so chose, but seems to be waiting for something…for a signal, perhaps, that her life should begin in earnest. Her cohort on the job is laconic, vaguely hostile Luke (Pat Healy), an anti-social geek who spends his spare time looking for ghosts in the hotel, and designing a web site related to paranormal activity. Luke has a crush on Claire, even though she is a good deal younger, and is also totally uncommitted to the job at hand.
The Innkeepers does a good job of charting the exigencies of life in the Yankee Pedlar Inn. One scene has Claire wrestling a recalcitrant garbage bag, trying to get it inside a dumpster on the street. The scene might as well serve as a metaphor for life and its inherent frustrations. At times, we all feel like we’re the ones hauling around that messy garbage bag, and not quite getting it where it’s supposed to go.
Other scenes explicitly involve Luke’s anti-social nature. He’s the more distinctly “Randal” component of the duo. He can’t seem to remember to bring his guests their towels, no matter how often he is asked. And worse, he actively insults the guests, revealing his true contempt for them.
Throughout the film, these two clerks banter, drink, and occasionally search for the ghost of Madeline O’Malley, the spirit believed to be haunting the premises. Claire relates to the myth of O’Malley more than even she fully understands. “Imagine how she feels, being stuck here forever?” Claire asks at one point, drawing an explicit comparison between her dead end job and O’Malley’s dead-end afterlife.
What could be worse than spending eternity in the place you died? Perhaps spending eternity in the low-paying job you absolutely hate…
Soon, an element of the unknown enters the clerks’ lives when a new guest, played by Kelly McGillis, stays at the hotel on closing weekend. She’s a dedicated psychic medium, one who believes she can contact the spirit world. More than that, she informs Claire that there is no present, no past, no future, and that all humans — throughout time — share a membrane of connection. Rather dramatically, this psychic, Leanne, reveals to Claire that there are actually three spirits inhabiting the hotel, not one.
She also reveals, incidentally, that Claire should — at all costs — stay out of the basement…
Naturally, since this is a horror movie, Claire does finally go down into the basement, and her decision to defy the medium’s instructions presents the film it’s hair-raising, spellbinding and absolutely scarring climax.
The last ten minutes of the movie are wholly terrifying, and they actually troubled my slumber the night my wife and I screened the film. I’ve heard some people describe the film as boring, but what this comes down to, I suspect, is the kind of horror fan you are. If you’re in it just for the kicks and the gore, The Innkeepers won’t be your cup of tea. It’s too deliberate, too precise (like The Shining) to appeal as a visceral thrill-fest. Oppositely, if you’re into the horror genre because you appreciate a slow burn and spine-tingling suspense, I guarantee you won’t be disappointed. This film delivers.
From The Shining and Kubrick, Ti West adopts much of his visual template. The Innkeepers is dominated by long, slow, quiet shots of empty hallways, dark corridors, and vacant rooms. West patiently erects a sense of suspense around these still moments so that when the ghosts “appear” (and boy do they appear…), the feeling of shock is palpable. Also, West breaks up his narrative into separate, almost self-contained “episodes” (The Long Weekend, Madeline O’Malley and The Final Guest), much in the way Kubrick broke up segments of The Shining to present a sense of routine and boredom; a distinct contrast to the film’s final, violent action.
As much as West masters the inner-space of the gloomy, creepy Yankee Pedlar Hotel, he likewise masters the psychology of his lead characters. Right now, we seem to be on the cusp of another “lost generation,” especially given the Great Recession and the slow recovery.
If you think about it, Clerks really did emerge from an analagous historical context, only there it was the Recession after the first President Bush, rather than the Recession after the second President Bush.
Accordingly, The Innkeepers plays in the uncomfortable terrain of economic uncertainty: of hotel closings and dead-end jobs that you don’t dare quit…because you know there’s nothing else out there. The narrative deals with people who have changed careers (Leanne used to be a TV star), who are losing their jobs (the hotel is closing) and are looking for a second or third act (Luke, with the webs site). The uncertainty of our times plays well with the uncertainty of the film’s text, and you must assume this is exactly what West intended.
Sara Paxton, Paul Healy and Kelly McGillis all do extraordinary jobs of creating quirky, intriguing and most of all, real people in this all-too-familiar context. Paxton and Healy also share some great chemistry, and their scenes together are alive with wit and humor. These clerks of The Innkeepers are — like the immortal Randal and Dante — two people you feel you already know in your life.
Which, of course, makes their ordeal in the film all the more harrowing, and affecting. As it should be.
I would like to write much more about The Innkeepers, but I really shouldn’t. The film’s conclusion is so intelligently wrought, so perfectly executed, that I don’t wish to do the film (or West) the disservice of over-explaining or over-analyzing before many people get to the chance to see the thing.
Suffice it to say that Ti West’s The Innkeepers unfolds with a sense of inevitability that is, simply, mind-blowing. The Innkeepers is a triumph, one of those rare and wondrous horror movies that you must watch twice just to pick up all the clues, and to see how everything holds together. This “ghost story for the minimum wage” impressed me on every level, and and makes me look forward to West’s next film with tremendous excitement.