Settling in for what is to be the Yankee Pedlar Inn’s final weekend as a fully functional establishment, employees Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) use the quiet to their advantage and decide to investigate the hotel’s well-documented supernatural history. But when their efforts fail to produce results, they turn to one of the hotel’s last guests, former actress turned physic Leanne Rease-Jones (Kelly McGillis), for help, a decision that soon has them coming face to face with the Pedlar’s horrific past.
Known more for his adherence to believable, relatable characters than his dense narratives, filmmaker Ti West returns to familiar territory with The Innkeepers. It’s a slice of filmmaking that cleverly subverts its position as a horror film by establishing itself first and foremost as a dark comedy about the peculiar duo of Claire and Luke and the inner workings of a hotel plagued by its troubled past, only then letting the supernatural elements seep out bit-by-bit.
West uses this approach to his advantage, not only by allowing for a deeply-rooted relationship to develop between the audience and our protagonists, yet unavoidably sweet-natured and innocent protagonists, but also by removing the film entirely of artifice. This makes the frights that do punctuate the mundanities and comic interplay, both between Claire and Luke and the encounters they share with the last-remaining customers, genuinely terrifying.
If scratched, the narrative reveals itself to be too prolonged and careful in its desire to present something unique, but whenever these opportunities present themselves, West finds ingenious ways to further Claire and Luke’s efforts to uncover the hotel’s supernatural secrets. This is no better represented than through Leanne’s introduction and quickly secured position as Claire’s guiding spirit – something that is solidified further through the blurring of boundaries between the real and the make believe it elicits.
It’s a clever way to enable the shift from dark comedy to something a little more sinister to be a natural progression, rather than something that feels forced to allow for the film to reach its eventual conclusion. And, while West mostly succeeds in the originality of his well-timed, solidly sporadic scares and the fact he keeps the computer effects used to a minimum (a signifier of the filmmakers preference of old-school techniques over new ones), he stumbles at the final hurdle with an ending that feels somewhat out-of-place and counterfeit compared to the truly authentic foundations.
That said, the joy of The Innkeepers lies in the strength of its cast – particularly Paxton, who more than makes up from the misstep that was Shark Night 3D – and its conceivable roots in a more evocative style of filmmaking. Because of West’s desire to only deliver shocks that have an intensely responsive effect on the audience and match the deep-rooted tone, the film is all the more perturbing than one with, say, a quick-fire pace and adherence to laboured conventions. The Innkeepers is not only an effective horror film, but also one that highlights how easily our minds can stretch the truth.