The Innkeepers has its fans. Most of them, though, are American. The movie was not a British hit. The film is low-key horror and different. In the first hour hardly anything happens. The horror climax, when it arrives, is undercooked. Ghosts in bizarre make up stand in the shadows and look strange. They do not do anything and they resemble the part-time actors we sometimes meet in tourist attractions. But maybe that is what ghosts do look like. Few sing and dance, scream or wield weapons. The critics of The Innkeepers feel that the film falls flat. More invention would have done no harm but the film for all its faults does stay in the mind. These days we have so much in our heads it is difficult to know where anything came from. At one point in The Innkeepers Luke warns his fellow hotel employee Claire about what should be put inside the brain. ‘Once it’s there you can’t get it out,’ says Luke. Plenty have put stuff in my head. Someone said somewhere that a book should finish with a mystery bigger than the one that started the book. I may have read it in a tweet on Twitter. The Innkeepers does leave a mystery, and the ending is more than ambiguous. It defies Hollywood convention.
If The Innkeepers had been made by an Iranian auteur and the audience had needed to wait for sub-titles then perhaps its critics might have accepted the slow pace and lack of surprises. This is what is interesting about The Innkeepers. This film, more than any, should make people head for the fence to find a seat. It makes few concessions to an audience but neither can we be convinced that its minimalism succeeds. Minimalism is fine when we can sense creative magic. Dull events and people can appeal but it takes skill. Some believe they have recognised that skill in The Innkeepers.
The Yankee Pedlar Inn is important to the film. All the scenes occur either in the hotel or around the hotel. The hotel exists. It is famous for being old, independent and hedge fund free. Supposedly haunted it attracts ghost hunters. To keep it simple writer and director Ti West has the two ghost-hunters, Claire and Luke, work in the hotel. They are college dropouts. Sara Paxton can be glamorous but for the part of Claire the actress suffers an unflattering haircut and a fringe that is held by a clip. She could be suspected of being a refugee from a grim Nordic Noir TV movie. Luke has a haircut inspired by reading too many Tin Tin cartoons. He looks like Elvis Costello and is almost as irritating. He is designing a probably never to be finished website. Claire and Luke make an undistinguished couple. The weakness or strength of the film, depending on your point of view, is that Ti West makes no attempt to make his protagonists interesting. We watch failures obliged to waste their lives on unrewarding jobs, failures who may have achieved in other circumstances but who now are reduced to stumbling through conversations. At one point Claire asks Luke if he regretted dropping out of college. ‘Every day,’ says Luke. The problem with regret is that it lasts a lifetime, and all the time it is preparing for the final days when it really does pack a punch. Luke and Claire are haunted by their past and their false steps through youth. To survive in the Yankee Pedlar Inn they will have to avoid the terror of the basement and take the right steps.
The best scene in the movie is when Claire meets guest Leanne, a medium who was once an actress. Kelly McGillis plays Leanne. McGillis has lost the glamour and beauty she had when she was young. This does not mean that she looks wrecked. She has merely aged in the way normal people do. There is no attempt to retain the myth of film star beauty. But it is still obvious from the encounter that Claire is very ordinary compared to the middle aged grey haired lady sitting in her hotel bedroom. Even the modest and fading celebrity of Leanne exposes the second rate existence of the fragile Claire.
The Innkeepers has been described as witty but the humour feels laboured to me. Others disagree and are entitled to. In one scene Claire struggles to get a large bag of rubbish in a tall bin with a heavy lid. Slapstick it is, Chaplin or Keaton it is not. Luke and Claire are not witty characters. They labour modest tasks and create confusion. There is a funny scene with a child of one of the guests when Claire walks half dressed into reception. After that most of the humour is either very subtle or non-existent. It is rewarding, though, to watch ghost hunters who are not the typical experts that carry their own portable Zen and drone on about mystical understanding. Watching Claire sit and wait for a manifestation, headphones attached to her head and large microphone in her hand, we sense a poor girl with little hope and second-hand ambition. This is ordinary life without Hollywood melodrama.
Most have resisted the obvious comparison between The Shining and The Innkeepers. Both films are set in an empty hotel. There may or may not be ghosts, and we have doubts about the imagination of the key character. In both films survival depends on taking the right steps, either away from the basement or out of the labyrinth. There are a couple of references to the film by Stanley Kubrick, and even a low level tracking shot along a hotel corridor. The location is important to both films. Kubrick pieced together rooms he had seen to make his imaginary hotel. Ti West uses the real thing, and the popularity of the Yankee Pedlar Inn with tourists must have helped the success of the film. The Innkeepers is low budget but it does take advantage of the hotel and its appeal. The ornate detail of the rooms and the patterned wallpaper and carpets suggest order and control, progress designed by practical people. There are two worlds in the hotel. The world built by the architects, and the loose mystical nightmare that is hidden. For all its faults The Innkeepers has more integrity than The Shining. The movie makes sense, and still leaves a mystery. It refuses to dilute alienation with charisma or add horror scenes that weaken the narrative. There are, though, a couple of moments that are nowhere near as significant as they pretend to be. The visit to the coffee shop where Claire meets the self-important waitress adds something to the study of failure and self-delusion but the connection to the rest of the film is weak. The exit of Leanne in a car at the end of the film occupies a long overhead shot that assumes a relevance that is missing.
The Innkeepers has good photography. The colour is muted but it does not slip into the fake monochrome sometimes favoured by modern moviemakers. The bright colours of the hotel are evident; they are just not so bright. The world of the hotel is empty but interesting and not unlike the lives most of us settle for after our youth has disappeared. The importance of the hotel as a character is made clear in the opening and stylish titles. The hotel is seen from various angles, and in different tints. The building is stationary and stakes a claim against time. Its guests merely pass through. Even Claire and Luke will move on. The owner is in Barbados. He has the economic freedom denied to Claire and Luke but he also is passing through. The ghosts may be victims of terrible mishaps in the past but they may also be blessed. They have permanence and the ultimate home denied others.
There are fake jump scares in The Innkeepers. Some of them are inconsequential. Most horror films will have one. A friend appearing suddenly is a common example. Because the events in The Innkeepers happen during long nights and to dull people, it needs more fake jump scares than most. It has them, and they are a contrast to the low-key appearance of the ghosts. Most of the jump scares are created by blundering human beings. The most disturbing scene consists of a dead body in a bath. The audience is not cheated in this instance. Although we had expected to see something horrible the scene still has impact. The gruesome discovery ensures we understand the unseemly desperation of suicide. The horror is not much more than blood and an anguished face but the self-hatred of the deceased and the willingness to mutilate is obvious. There are places and people best avoided but what we carry about inside our heads is also frightening and dangerous and there are no steps away from that.
There are a few loose ends in The Innkeepers. The visiting medium somehow disappears when the action begins. Some of these loose ends are deliberate. Unless we take seriously the final moment before the end credits we can enjoy the privilege of wondering about what really happened. It is not recommended that viewers blink during horror movies but in this instance it is preferred. The rest of the time, though, eyes should be kept open. The Innkeepers may not engage an audience as much as it should but it does leave plenty to think about when daylight arrives.
Howard Jackson has had six books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and Horror Pickers, a collection of film criticism. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.