Ti West seems to be a director whom people either love or hate. His previous movies, THE ROOST, CABIN FEVER 2 and HOUSE OF THE DEVIL divided people, some calling them boring and derivative, others loving the attention to detail and the slow burn suspense generated. Me, I can take him or leave him. He’s no Uwe Boll, but he’s no Rob Zombie either.
But when I heard about his upcoming ghost story THE INNKEEPERS, and the buzz it was generating, I thought I might have to give him another go. I’ve been inundated with Found Footage paranormal nonsense that either fails to deliver, or goes way over the top (and makes me queasy with the shaky-cam. Someone tell the cameraman he’s supposed to wait until later to masturbate over the nude shots, not while he’s filming them), so I was looking for a more straightforward ghost movie. I had a feeling, even then, that West would continue to divide critics. Which, I suppose, is the mark of at least an interesting director, if he can polarize critics and audiences.
The title sequence and musical score (from Jeff Grace, composer for STAKE LAND and the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy) plays out in pure, old-fashioned 70s TV-movie style. Which I like. I grew up with them, spooky little gems that you remembered long afterwards like the original DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK, DARK NIGHT OF THE SCARECROW, CROWHAVEN FARM and many others. THE INNKEEPERS also gives us old-fashioned title cards (Prologue, Act 1, etc), firmly establishing that West wants to tell us – or at least try and tell us – a good old-fashioned ghost story.
And through the title sequence we get to see the evolution of the Yankee Pedlar Inn, a real place in Connecticut (www.pedlarinn.com) where you can still stay, and I have to say from the start that it is a grand, impressive-looking piece of architecture, one that will be as much a character in this story as The Overlook in THE SHINING. But in the movie’s story, the Inn is getting ready to close after over a hundred years of loyal but sporadic service, its owners are away on vacation, and the few remaining guests have been left in the dubious hands of only two employees, Claire (Sara Paxton, SHARK NIGHT 3D, LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT) and her friend Luke (Pat Healy, MAGNOLIA, GHOST WORLD).
Both of them are the sort of twentysomething college dropouts you’ve seen in a hundred movies, taking the job because it’s easy and they’re left mostly unsupervised, allowing Luke to update his website on the paranormal history of the Inn, and allowing Claire to fall for at least one of his pranks (which will shock you – but only if you’ve never watched one of these movies before). Then Claire’s interest is piqued by a new guest, former TV show actress Leanne Reese-Jones (Kelly McGillis, TOP GUN, STAKE LAND) who now works as a professional medium and psychic (Jeez, do you think that while be pertinent later?).
But after embarrassing herself with Leanne, Claire returns to reading about the history of the Inn, particularly about Madeline O’Malley, a bride who was jilted and who had killed herself at the Inn, and the owners had hidden the body on the premises for several guests so as not to alarm the guests. Luke has heard noises and recorded doors opening and closing, and while Claire is alone (with only the two of them in attendance to maintain the place, they take staggered shifts), she begins exploring the place, watching, listening… and then hearing music from the piano in the lounge! There are other scares, ones which prompt the asthmatic Claire to take out her inhaler and give herself a quick puff (Jeez, do you think that while be pertinent later?).
Her findings are generally waved off by a surprisingly reluctant-seeming Luke, so she turns to Leanne, who offers to help her contact the spirits in the Inn – thought after one session where Leanne’s crystal pendulum shatters, she decides that maybe it would be better not to. Still, Claire is driven, and distracted only by another arrival, an old man (George Riddle, THE ONION NEWS NETWORK) who insists on checking into a particular room on the third floor, despite that floor being shut down and emptied of furniture (Jeez, do you think that while be pertinent later?).
But then things turn decidedly nasty following a drunken dare by Claire and Luke to go down into the cellar to try and contact Madeline O’Malley (against Leanne’s advice). Claire claims to hear something, which freaks Luke out enough to make him depart from the property entirely – but not before confessing to Claire that he’d seen and heard nothing there, that he’d made it all up for his website…
There are some things I liked about this movie. The two leads worked well together, they definitely had this vibe going, of long-time friends (and Pat Healy manages to pull off that particular unspoken, unrequited attraction he has for Claire without making it too obvious). I liked that the search for ghosts came about as a result of boredom rather than a deliberate, professional attempt at deciphering the unknown, and that it’s a gradual build-up of little, realistic clues rather than an all-out CGI-bukkake session. And kudos to the Inn itself, all staircases and long corridors, and West shoots almost all of it with the lights on (another nod to THE SHINING, perhaps?), so that those scenes we do get in darkness have a heightened sense of danger to them. And the pacing is deliberate, until it speeds up for the climax.
But it’s also flawed. The dialogue is awful; I’ve read some reviewers complimenting the fast-paced, Kevin Smith-style, but there was nothing of that here. We do get a lot of our duo talking about what they wanted to do with their lives besides watch over a hotel, and there are some embarrassing attempts at physical humor, as well as segueways which go nowhere (like a visit to a coffee shop and an oversharing clerk, and a mother and her son staying at the hotel while trying to avoid an abusive partner, who’s never seen and has nothing to do with the main story). We get some psychobabble from Kelly McGillis’ character about the nature of reality and the spirit world, but nothing as to why they’re coming after Claire, and while I accept that there was an attempt at maintaining mystery and ambiguity, this lack of payoff in the denouement still annoyed me.
Then there’s the Inn itself. The interiors are superb. But throughout the supernatural shenanigans, I remained aware that the Inn sits, not on a mountaintop or a desert or deep in the woods, but on the main street of a town. You can literally walk out of the place with minimal effort, or open a window and call for help, and this awareness of a lack of isolation for our characters ruined much of the attempt at suspense for me.
As I wrote above, THE INNKEEPERS plays like a TV movie of the 70s, with all their strengths and weakness. No gore, no sex and just a little profanity. There is atmosphere, and some jumps, but I felt underwhelmed at the finish. It needed a better hand at the script, and some payoff at the end. So I suppose this is definitely another Ti West movie, one that people will either love or hate.
Check out the trailer:
Director: Ti West
Plot: 3 out of 5 stars
Gore: 1 out of 10 skulls
Zombie Mayhem: 0 out of 5 brains
Reviewed by Derek “Deggsy” O’Brien