For horror fans like me, 2011 saw the decline of remakes, torture porn and slasher films. While the financial pull of these subgenres nosedived, there was an unexpected revival of the paranormal subgenre, with films like “Insidious” and “Paranormal Activity 3” taking in impressive box office figures. It is therefore all the more shocking that in this cinematic climate, 2011’s best paranormal horror film failed to secure widespread theatrical distribution.
“The Innkeepers” is the latest film from contemporary horror auteur, Ti West. After a slew of low budget features, West gained some much-deserved recognition with 2009’s retro “The House of the Devil,” and has since been steadily expanding his already impressive resume.
At its core, “The Innkeepers” tells a very simple story. An old Connecticut hotel (the nonfictional Yankee Pedlar Inn) is the victim of recession and in its last few days of operation. Its staff has been dwindled down to college dropout Claire (Sara Paxton) and geeky slacker Luke (Pat Healy). Well aware of the hotel’s sinister past and reported hauntings, Claire and Luke set out to find irrefutable proof of the hotel’s most famous ghost, a woman who hung herself in one of its many rooms.
Remarkably, West uses all the necessary tropes of the ghost story yet still produces a product that feels unique. West crafts his narratives with a detail to character rarely seen in films of this ilk, and that is exactly what distinguishes him from most of his contemporaries.
In a genre known for the stupidity of its characters, the protagonists of “The Innkeepers” are a breath of fresh air. It’s been a while since a horror film has had leads this endearing and appealing. It’s almost impossible not to identify with Claire, whose enthusiasm for their paranormal investigation stems from a relatable place: she is eager to take part in the ghost hunt because it serves as a temporary distraction from the looming challenges of reality. Unemployment in a recession is a far scarier thing to dwell on than a ghost story, especially for a college dropout unsure of what she wants from life.
The rest of its characters are just as relatable. They are not stereotypes masquerading as people. They do make some ill-advised decisions, but their actions have believable motivations behind them.
Put simply, these are not your average horror film characters, but the standout component of the film is really the burgeoning relationship between co-workers Claire and Luke. Their banter is organic and the chemistry between them could rival that of most (good) romantic-comedies.
Thankfully, the film plays fair with its twist ending — which sadly, is more than most horror films of late. The ending is satisfyingly scary and tragic, yet also oddly reassuring. The film has an emotional resonance that the rest of West’s works have not — and this is probably the biggest improvement to his craft.
Similar to West’s other films, the pacing is what will divide audiences into two camps. For seasoned horror fans, the slow pace will bring about a palpable tension the genre has not seen for some time. However, audiences needing action or jump-scares every few minutes will likely find the pace unbearable.
While many critics have been quick to describe his films as “minimalist horror”, or an off-shoot of the “mumble-core” film movement, Ti West himself doesn’t subscribe to these labels. However, the one thing West can’t deny is that his films’ unorthodox pacing seem to be both his biggest asset and his biggest liability as a filmmaker.
Because of this, “The Innkeepers” is not for everyone. It’s a horror film for those who care more about the characters and their journey than the ultimate payoff.
Last week, “The Innkeepers” was released for rental on iTunes, where it will attempt to create buzz before hitting a limited number of theaters in February. Knowing that many of you will probably be heading to see the newly-released, lackluster studio effort “The Devil Inside,” this movie puts your $10 to better use; even with its shortcomings, “The Innkeepers” is a vastly superior film.
Enjoyable and unexpectedly charming, “The Innkeepers” has raised the bar for its paranormal-horror brethren.