Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Day 124: The Innkeepers

"I'm not negative, I'm a realist, there's a difference."

Ti West's 2009 horror film House of the Devil is a mini-masterpiece of genre experimentation. It perfectly replicated the early 80s Satanic Panic films that were a staple of the mom & pop video stores I grew up in. I couldn't say enough good things about it in my review a few months back, and it was with breathless anticipation that I greeted the release of his newest film, 2011's The Innkeepers.
Where House of the Devil was made with loving care to look like a film that was actually made in the early 80s, The Innkeepers is very much a product of the year in which it was made. In fact, the story behind the story is that the hotel the film is set in, The Yankee Peddlar Inn, is where West and his crew stayed while shooting House of the Devil. Make no mistake about it though, West is a filmmaker much more interested in the slow building intensity that provides the true horror that most of us have come to seek in a horror film.
Owing a clear debt to Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, without ever trying to recreate that film's inimitable style, The Innkeepers is set on the last weekend in business of The Yankee Peddlar Inn, a real hotel in Connecticut. Claire (Sara Paxton) & Luke (Moby doppleganger Pat Healy) are the last two employees of the hotel, and they are on a quest to discover if there's any truth behind the ghosts that are rumored to be haunting the hotel. Armed with audio and video surveillance equipment, they set out to either capture these ghosts on tape, or dispel their existence (as much as that word can apply to ghosts).

Over the course of the hotel's last days, there are only four official guests on the books. A mother (Alison Bartlett, Gina from Sesame Street) and her son (Jake Schlueter), an aging actress from an old tv show (Kelly McGillis), who claims to have psychic abilities, and an old man (George Riddle) wanting to stay in the room he stayed in on his honeymoon decades ago.
The film ratchets up the intensity to almost unbearable levels, giving minor payoffs along the way through some well-placed jump scares, likely to induce laughter from the audience immediately after they've jumped out of their seats. And make no mistake, these are good old fashioned scares designed to give temporary relief from the building intensity, not cheap scares designed to goad you into being more scared than the film could ever hope to make you on its own.

West is a savvy enough horror master to pay-off on his multiple set-ups (Claire's incessant use of her inhaler after being scared, Luke's macho-facade, the old man's creepy appearance out of thin air on the hotel's last day in business). Breaking the film up into chapters is also another convention that West uses to maximum effect, giving the film an episodic style that befits its homage to The Shining. Just as the last twenty minutes of House of the Devil gives us everything we'd been promised in the previous hour and more, so too does The Innkeepers give in to your desire to see all the various set-ups paid off in the most intense way imaginable.
This is horror filmmaking that rewards patience and perseverance. Audiences raised on the torture-porn excesses of the latter half of the last decade will likely not have the fortitude to make it to the myriad pay-offs this film has in store for them. The popularity of the Paranormal Activity films has given me some hope that audiences have finally tired of the constant one-ups-manship of those films that seemed to dominate horror films of late.

The performances are all wonderful, with Paxton being a true stand-out. Much like Jocelin Donahue in House of the Devil, West has a wonderful knack for casting damsels in distress worth rooting for. Healy is also great as the typical apathetic & aimless thirty-something who's sardonic attitude masks a scared man-child beneath. McGillis is terrific as well, fitting well into the mold of an aging actress without a hint of vanity, much like her predecessor Mary Woronov in West's previous film. There's also a great cameo from indie it-girl of the moment, Lena Dunham, as a chatty barista.
While this film has no singular set-piece as phenomenal as the scene set to The Fixx's "One Thing Leads To Another" in House of the Devil, it's definitively more than the sum of its parts. The payoffs come fast and furious in the last thirty minutes, and it rewards your patience with genuine terror. I hate to say, "If you can make it past the first hour, you'll love it," because the first hour isn't some gauntlet to survive in order to enjoy what the film has to offer. It's all part of the ride, and if you can't hang with the first hour, it's probably not the film for you anyway.

PopGo Rating: 4/5

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