Reception to Ti West’s films generally falls into two camps; those who are scared shitless, and those who are bored shitless (spare underwear is advisable either way). I fall firmly into the latter. West has an uncanny knack for piling on suspense scene after scene, as if he’s experimenting to see how long he can maintain sheer terror for without anything actually jumping out at his characters. The Innkeepers (2011) boasts his greatest results yet.
Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) are the only staff members at The Yankee Pedlar Inn for its last weekend of business. Considering the hotel’s size this could be quite a task, if not for the fact that only two rooms are being rented. Claire and Luke are therefore free to try and capture proof that the ghost of Madeline O’Malley, who legend has it hung herself in the hotel, still stalks the corridors. Although keen to upload anything they capture on his website chronicling the hotel’s paranormal activity, Luke’s lazy, apathetic attitude leaves Claire to ghost hunt alone. Upon experiencing unexplainable phenomena she seeks aid from Leanne (Kelly McGillis), an actress-cum-psychic who is conveniently one of the hotel’s few guests. Leanne swiftly warns of danger, instructing Claire to stay away from the basement.
With her spindly figure accentuated by skinny jeans, exaggerated mannerisms and adorable pluckiness Claire is reminiscent of a cartoon character. In one scene she huffs and puffs whilst haphazardly swinging a bin bag that seemingly weighs as much as her into a bin, whist another sees her to knocked to the floor in terror by a bird flying out of a hatch, legs flailing comically in the air. While Claire’s innocence makes it even more painful to watch her being tormented, Luke’s dry wit also has appeal, and despite his un-emotive exterior the affection he holds for Claire seeps through, as does his true nature as a scaredy-cat.
The cinematography enhances Claire’s isolation and tantalises the viewer by repeatedly framing her head on. This way we not only emphasise with her by being privy to her terrified expressions, but a lurking terror comes from the fact we cannot see what she sees. On the occasions that we do see apparitions they’re suitably grisly, but never overused. In horror timing is paramount, and shocks should never come exactly when expected. The Innkeepers scares sometimes come about ten minutes after convention dictates, but they’re always perfectly positioned to leave you reaching for that spare underwear.
West’s keen eye for horror is reflected in the eeire setting, which is actually the hotel he stayed at whilst filming The House of the Devil (2009). The Yankee Pedlar Inn’s rich furnishings possess a timeless quality, strengthened by a lack of modern technology. Luke’s laptop is the only exception, and the absence of smartphones means Claire cannot escape her isolation by ‘poking’ friends on Facebook.
Despite a clear debt to The Shining (1980), The Innkeepers feels very refreshing. In personalising classic horror devices West has honed a chilling technique which he executes with utter confidence and sincerity. While many modern horror directors are content lathering on graphic imagery or crafting postmodern pastiches West is trying something different; actually scaring people. Let’s hope it catches on.