Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Innkeepers (2011)

A hotel with the quaint name of "Yankee Pedlar Inn" is in the final week of its existence. Businesswise, there's nothing at all happening, so Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy), the place's two remaining employees (its boss is using his ill-gotten gains for a holiday) look forward to a quiet and boring time, which is the thing you want when you have to sleep at your place of work for its closing down, and you'd really rather play around hunting the hotel's ghosts you don't actually believe in.

The hotel's only guests are a cranky mother (Alison Bartlett) and her little son (Jake Ryan), an old man (George Riddle) wanting to sleep in the honeymoon suite for reasons of nostalgia, and the former TV actress Leanne Rease-Jones (Kelly McGillis), so there's enough time and space for Claire and Luke to try and make contact with the hotel's resident ghost. Luke, who is more into the whole ghost hunting thing, or at least more experienced at it, has already encountered the ghost before, but during the course of the following nights, it will be Claire who is most determined to meet the dead.

Alas, as M.R. James taught, encountering a ghost can have dire consequences.

Last time I wrote about a film by Ti West I was more than just a bit exasperated by the director's seeming unwillingness to use his clearly great talents as a filmmaker for anything more than a piece of retro horror so retro it even copied all of the flaws of the films it imitated, instead of making the great Ti West movie he obviously had in him.

I'm happy to report this criticism doesn't apply at all to The Innkeepers. While the film is informed by a knowledge and love for older horror movies and ghost stories, it's not a slave to that knowledge and love, and instead uses them as a foundation on which to build something all its own, really turning it into the Ti West movie - that is, a film giving expression to a personal philosophy and style - I had hoped for.

This doesn't mean that West leaves behind everything he did before stylistically. As the director's earlier films, The Innkeepers is putting its narrative emphasis firmly on mood and characterisation, telling its story in a slow and deliberate way that is the complete opposite of the way ninety percent of modern horror movies tell their stories. I'm sure quite a few people will be bored by the film; I'm just as sure these people are missing out on one of the best ghost stories not filmed in Japan.

For West really is so, so good at creating mood. At first, the film stays tonally so light it could easily turn into an outright comedy (of the mid-brow indie type), but slowly, in ways expected and unexpected, the hotel and the things we see, those we nearly see, and those we only expect to see (not to speak of the things we hear - the film's sound design is decidedly clever), come together to create a mood first of tension, then of outright dread, until the film culminates in a climax that is as consequent (as in destiny) as it is ambiguous. Even though all the clues to understanding what's going on are in the film (which of course does not hinder certain types of viewer from not understanding because the exposition fairy didn't come and puke into their faces), there's still a lingering feeling of the inexplicable left after all is said and done, something, I'd argue, more horror films should try to produce.

I'm still not completely done swooning, for The Innkeepers does not just showcase West's technical perfection (apart from the sound design, his editing and Eliot Rockett's cinematography are something to behold in a subtle, not at all showy, way) applied to a very fine ghost story, it's also a film that shows of a small and very talented case without, you know, showing off with them. The three main members of the cast - Paxton, Healy and McGillis - are all highly sympathetic and manage to not just let their characters come to life - so as to keep the audience more wary of their final fates - but also present their hidden complexities in ways subtle enough to fit in with the rest of a film that is playing with perfectly open cards yet also wants its audience to be patient and attentive, or perhaps rather a film that knows that its audience is patient and attentive.

The Innkeepers is just an all around fantastic film, the sort of movie I'd call a future classic of horror cinema, if I were the kind of guy who made that kind of pronouncement.

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