Dark Sky Films // 2011 // 101 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis // May 5th, 2012
Some guests never check out.
Strange things have been going down at Torrington, CT's Yankee Pedlar Inn. For years, guests have reported seeing shadows, smelling horrid odors, and even witnessing actual spectral encounters. When making The House of the Devil, director Ti West (Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever) stayed at the storied inn and, after hearing some of the stories and falling in love with the hotel, decided to center a film around its hauntings. The result is The Innkeepers, a funny and scary dive into the realm of the supernatural.
After over a century in business, the Yankee Pedlar Inn is closing its doors. On its final weekend in business, ghost-obsessed desk clerks Claire (Sara Paxton, Shark Night) and Luke (Pat Healy, Rescue Dawn) are staying in the place along with their three guests. Soon, they start to witness strange occurrences and hear otherworldly sounds and, when they start to investigate, they discover the terrifying true nature of the ghosts in the hotel.
Through his short career, Ti West, who also writes and edits his work, has shown a clear understanding and respect for the horror genre. He gets what makes movies scary and that rarely includes buckets of gore or something jumping out at the camera. Instead, he relies on mood and tone to create his suspense in a way that almost nobody else can or even tries to accomplish. If The House of the Devil, his previous and breakout film, looked back to early '80s Satanism films, The Innkeepers looks back even farther to an almost Victorian style of gothic suspense. It's not so much a throwback as an attempt to make a modern ghost story in a campfire-tales style, but I could easily see an author like Henry James penning a tale something like this.
The best thing about The Innkeepers is likely the same thing that will turn off the less patient horror fans out there. Like The House of the Devil, this film is a slow burner, but West takes it to a different level here. If you didn't know any better, the first third of the movie could fool you into thinking it's a quirky romantic comedy involving ghost-obsessed nerds. It allows something important to happen that's most often lacking in the genre these days: character development. Crazy, right? Well, surprisingly, it works. Claire and Luke feel like real people, just a couple of dorks who've worked too long together in a hotel. Rather than just trying to overpower his audience with scares, West lets us get to know the characters so that, when things do start to go downhill for them, we can actually care a little bit.
It took me a while to get to like Claire but, eventually, the genuineness of her character took over and I started to root for her by the end. Paxton's performance is very good to that end, though the quirkiness is a little irritating at the start. Luke is also a fun character, maybe a little more relatable than Claire, as well, and Pat Healy's performance is equally strong. Kelly McGillis (Top Gun) also has a choice role as an old TV star turned medium and George Riddle (Arthur) is perfectly creepy as the aptly named "Old Man." It's a small cast, but they have good chemistry all around and their work makes the film a breeze to watch.
As long as it takes to get going, The Innkeepers really is a horror movie and, once that stuff starts, it gets pretty creepy. West keeps the goofy humor going throughout, but knows when to get down to business. He doesn't try to play with the genre too much, and delivers a good old-fashioned ghost story, but he does poke fun at the jump scare convention a little bit. The first scare is a complete joke; it's so easy to see it coming, but it still works and, not only that, gets a laugh on the back end. The scares that really get you here, though, are the ones that come slowly, away from the audio cues that usually trigger these moments.
West helps the creepiness move by creating a cool and moody atmosphere. Because it was filmed entirely within the confines of the inn, the film has a genuine sense of geography. This isn't your average Ramada; this is a 19th Century style place with thin hallways and weird old memorabilia all over the place (much of which is actually part of the place). It feels like a place that has stories and West evokes that really well. Part of that is letting the audience take in the architecture, but some of it also through the way Eliot Rockett, West's usual cinematographer, shoots the hallways and some of it comes from the effective score by Jeff Grace (I Sell the Dead). I think that, ultimately, I liked The House of the Devil better as a horror film, but West continues to show improved filmmaking skills and I can't wait to see what's next from the director.
The DVD for The Innkeepers comes from Dark Sky Films in a decent release. The anamorphic image is a little soft all around with somewhat less detail than I would like to see (though I might just be getting more used to seeing Blu-ray resolution), but the black levels and color palette are very solid. The surround sound, though, is excellent. There is detailed separation in all the channels, music and dialog are always clear and strong, and the low end gets a really good workout. For extras, we start with two solid commentaries. The first, featuring West, producers Larry Fessenden and Peter Phok, and sound designer Graham Reznick, is on the technical side, but West runs a good commentary, as I've seen in his previous work, and keeps things pretty interesting. In the second, West returns with Sara Paxton and Pat Healy for a much more jovial, jokey commentary. Both are pretty good. A brief behind-the-scenes featurette and a trailer round out the disc.
Some people might object to how long the horror takes to get going but, if it's all about gore and body counts for those people, this isn't the movie for them. I'd rather have one long build-up for one good payoff than a whole bunch of them, and it delivers the goods while still managing to inject enough humor into it to make you really like the characters. With The Innkeepers, Ti West shows once again why he's one of the best young horror filmmakers working today.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Dark Sky Films
* 2.40:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 101 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Official Site
* Luke's Yankee Pedlar