Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Innkeepers

The Innkeepers (2011)
Dir. Ti West
Starring Sarah Paxton, Pat Healy, Kelly McGillis

    Ti West is a director that entered my radar when everyone and their creepy parents went googoo gaga nuts over HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, an 80’s horror throwback which won raves from people whose opinions matter thanks in a large part to its very slow, gradual build and authentic 80s productions trappings. It sounds so good I haven’t watched it yet. When you watch as many movies as I do, there just aren’t that many truly great ones floating around left to be discovered for the first time, so I’m saving it for a special occasion (presumably the capstone to this year’s Halloween Scotchtoberfestival of Frights*). But I’m assured that it’s great, so when Ti West’s new one THE INKEEPERS came calling, I figured I’d better jump on the bandwagon. Little did I know before I started this review that the bandwagon had actually been rolling for some time -- West had already written and directed four low-profile horror films before HOUSE, including, if wikipedia can honestly be believed on this, CABIN FEVER 2. 

    INKEEPERS is not what you might expect from the director of CABIN FEVER 2, or from the reputation of HOUSE OF THE DEVIL. Actually it’s not the kind of film you might expect from anyone. It’s a sort of odd fairy tale/slacker comedy/horror movie hybrid, told in three portentously-titled acts with an epilogue. You know, like, Um. Wasn’t there a SAW sequel kind of like that?

    I knew HOUSE OF THE DEVIL famously took its time building up to a big payoff, so I wasn’t surprised, at first, that this one doesn’t start throwing ghosts at us right off the bat. But it IS a horror movie, right? I mean, we will get to them? The movie very cutely keeps hinting that it will, and then never seems to get around to it. So instead, what we get is our two leads Claire (Sarah Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) as early-20 and early 30s (respectively) clerks at a supposedly haunted hotel on its last weekend of operation. They talk about ghosts a good bit (Luke is creating a website about the hotel and supposedly looking for “proof” of supernatural activity) and every once in awhile the music gets spooky to remind us that something scary is incipient. But then nothing ever happens. And at about halfway through, you suddenly realize that it’s all some sort of weird tease. When the first genuine shock scare happens, you almost can’t believe your eyes. Did that really happen?!

    And that’s the odd magic this thing works on you. It’s the filmatic equivalent of hanging out with your friends, telling scary stories, and finally working up enough courage to peek into the old abandoned house down the road. You’re gonna be scared, but nothing’s really going to happen. And that’s OK. Because it’s fun wasting time with friends and freaking each other out. And you’re going to think of Claire and Luke as your friends, or at least your friendly co-workers, by the end. There’s a real honest charm to their performances and to their unique relationship. I can’t think of another film that really ever explored this particular dynamic with the depth that this one does, and yet it’s something I’m certain every person can relate to. They’re not exactly friends in the sense that they have much in common or would spend time together outside work -- but being stuck at the same boring job all day breeds a kind of easy camaraderie. If they weren’t stuck there, they wouldn’t be together, but they are, so why not spend the time making jokes, giving each other grief, getting drunk, and talking about the issues. The rapport between them feels exceedingly easy and natural, and both Paxton and Healy are utterly believable and likeable. Paxton, in particular, is spunky and adorable in a way which makes her endearing, vulnerable, and hilarious all at once.

Given the relaxed and ingratiating vibe of hanging out late nights in an almost-empty hotel with these two, it’s almost a shame when --with maybe 30 minutes remaining-- West remembers it’s actually a horror movie and has to provide some ghosts. The horror is nothing to be embarrassed about, but it’s a little generic for an otherwise genre-defying film. I’d have been perfectly happy for the whole thing to be a giant tease, but if you’re going to build to a horror climax from such a unique and extended setup, I’d say the horror needs to be a little more shocking than this. What’s more, there seems to be the suggestion that all this has something to say about the inability to escape fate which isn’t exactly backed up by the rest of the narrative**.

It’s not a disaster by any stretch of the imagination, it’s simply that the end of the film changes direction enough that it doesn’t quite capitalize on the strengths of the particular dynamic it has built so stealthily during most of the runtime (except that your fondness for the characters makes you want them to survive). Which is not to say that the ending comes out of nowhere; the seeds are being sown since frame one. But the sudden change in tone is a bit jarring, and the scares, though earned, are straight out of Scary Ghost Faces 101. They’d be filler scares in INSIDIOUS 2 or something like that. Creepy, but maybe not flashy enough to hang a horror finale on.

That said, there’s something elegant about the way the film weaves its apparently conflicting tones together, in and out, throughout the whole of its runtime, veeeerrrrryyyy gradually shifting us from normal consensus reality into supernatural horror. And because the characters feel so likeable and real, putting them in scary situations has a different vibe than your usual scenario with six-or-seven disposable attractive thirtysomething college students. Here, the thirtysomething is actually playing a thirtysomething, and the fact that he’s working this job allows him to be sardonic and nonplussed, but with an undercurrent of desperation that his life has taken him here. There are undercurrents of unspoken sadness and resignation all over the film, actually. And it’s grim resignation to fate --more than terror-- that seems to be the aim of the horror. Like all the characters in the film, we’re haunted more by our own lives, our pasts --and maybe our futures-- than we are by spirits. And if the spirits get us in the end, it’s only because they’re the ultimate expression of their own pasts. The real horror is not being eaten by ghosts, but being stuck with them. Or becoming them.

PS: Also, this film has a really boss Poster.

PPS: Also, I suddenly realized that I didn't include this on my best-of-2011 list. I knew I forgot something important. So yeah, It should be there. 

Super Secret PXPS: Also longtime friend of the show Dan P. wrote a little about this one awhile back on his blog, check it out. Read this now.

*working title.

**Although interestingly, I think you can probably read something into the three guests staying at the hotel, and the different ways they are attempting to escape being trapped by their lives. Arguably there’s kind of a REAR WINDOW thing going on here, where we can imagine the stuck central characters becoming any of these people, or maybe all of them. Still don’t quite see how fate factors into it, though.


  1. I think I would've preferred that we not actually see the Scary Ghost Faces 101 scary ghosts. I think that not only would have jived better with the feel of the rest of the movie, but also would have let the ambiguity of the ending hang more thickly. As it was, the fact that the end was supposed to be a "did she or didn't she see something real?" almost went over my head, because I was distracted by the Scary Ghost Faces and missed the inhaler detail (partly my fault for being dense, but leaving the ghosts visuals unseen would've driven the ambiguity home without feeling like it was hitting us over the head with it, because it'd be accomplishing it through strategic omission and focus on atmosphere/Sarah's experience of the ending, rather than the external visuals).

  2. I completely agree. The end makes it pretty clear that she literally sees the ghosts -- not just as intimations and glimpses, but physically present in the room with her and chasing her, interacting with objects, etc. So if we're going to buy any ambiguity, we've gotta believe that she was outright hallucinating consistent, detailed figures.

    I think the ambiguity is more along the lines of, did the ghosts *kill* her or did they just scare her until she died of asthma? But that's a slightly less interesting ambiguity. I would have preferred more hinting, less directly showing. The sequence where she (apparently) sees the ghost "right behind" Luke, but he refuses to turn around and hence we never see it -- that's a perfect little scene there, and I wish more of the ending had been along those lines.

    Still liked the movie a whole lot. But if they were going to go explicit, I feel like it should have been way more horrifying.

  3. OK, first off: I didn’t realize THAT was the ambiguity, I think maybe because Dan thought that the ambiguity was whether the ghosts were real or she scared herself to death, so I didn’t think of it a different way. But I think if we’re going off your interpretation, that the ghosts were real but we’re not sure if they killed her or if she was so scared of them she asthma-d herself to death (I’m sorry, but does that really happen?), I have another thought about this (though my connection might be tenuous, and I can’t remember if you’ve seen TAKE SHELTER or not, but in any case you probably know that they tell you what’s real at the end, but I won’t say which option, in case you haven’t seen it):

    I hadn't thought of it before, but this almost (albeit in a very different movie) presents exactly the same problematic ending that TAKE SHELTER did. Another movie I loved loved loved 95%, but that kind of blew it in the endgame. Both movies dealt with the ambiguity of reality, with TAKE SHELTER's tension coming from the struggle of whether or not to believe one's subjective experiences, and whether to act on them even if one knows logically it shouldn’t be real, and what the implications of acting on either assumption are (i.e., if the impending apocalypse is real, and he fails to act accordingly, he fails as a husband and a father, because he fails to protect his family. It's a risk he can't take. But if it isn't real, and he's insane, then he still fails them as a father and a provider. Also a risk he can't take. Either way, his failure to act or his failure to be sane comes from a combination of who he is and the choices he makes, which another facet of who he is in themselves). Anyway, that's the whole struggle, the whole tension--and to have a pat and dry answer at the end, telling us which would have been the right one to choose? It just makes the whole movie, and the emotional plane on which you connected with it the whole time, feel deflated.

    I feel like that was almost the same problem with this ending. We connected with the subjective experiences of Sarah and Luke, both as people (cultivated in that wonderful, natural co-worker hangout vibe) and in their interactions with the hotel (i.e., the tensions with the place itself and with the other characters came from their subjective experiences not always matching up with reality, i.e., the old man who seems sinister but whose presence is actual a sad, poignant one rather than a malignant one, and of course, the ghosts, during the buildup and at the end). And then it’s almost as if an outside narrator comes in through voice-over and tells us, yep, no, there were ghosts. There were definitely ghosts. I’d rather have been left not knowing, still feeling uneasy, just as Luke probably did at the end.

  4. ...and the character's name was Claire. Not Sarah. D'oh.