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Thursday, October 27, 2011

HALLOWEEN COUNTDOWN: Horror on a minimum wage

THE INNKEEPERS (2011)
Directed by Ti West
Starring Sara Paxton, Pat Healy and Kelly McGillis

If you had told me that the next movie from the guy behind House of the Devil was also going to be a throwback to an earlier style of horror, I certainly wouldn't have been surprised. But if you'd told me that he was making a slow-burn ghost story with very little gore, along the lines of the original The Haunting or Les Diaboliques, then I'd probably say you were crazy.

But that is, in fact, what writer/director/editor Ti West has given us, and it's pretty darn good.

The story concerns itself with the last weekend of business for an old inn called the Yankee Pedlar, in a declining town in the New England. It's clear that the owner is only interested in keeping the place from burning down, so the entire staff for the weekend is two young people working the front desk, trading off 12 hour shifts. Claire (Sara Paxton), the younger of the two, is an imaginative, sweet, and naive college drop-out still trying to figure out what she wants to do with her life. Luke (Pat Healy), several years older, is a burned-out cynic, unwilling to do even the minimum amount of work the inn's paltry two guests request. (One of the subtler running jokes is Luke's refusal to put towels in any of the rooms no matter how many times a guest asks).

Perhaps the only thing interesting about Luke (and the main topic of conversation between him and Claire) is that he is an amateur ghost-hunter, with a website (albeit one that makes old Geocities sites look professional) devoted to the hauntings at the inn. There's a rather generic legend about the place and a young woman who supposedly killed herself after being stood up at the altar, and Luke has convinced Claire that the young woman, named Madeleine O'Malley, still haunts the place These two working stiffs have decided that they're going to make the most of this long weekend by actually recording some manner of supernatural phenomenon.

At first, they have about the success you would expect from two amateur ghost-hunters, but when Claire is recording audio phenomenon alone, she records something that might be supernatural. And when she consults with one of their guests (as much out of loneliness and fear as for any credible reason), the guest (Kelly McGillis) turns out to be a faith healer, who makes contact with a ghost who may be Madeleine and warns her to stay out of the basement...

I know up above I compared this to a slow-burn horror movie like Les Diaboliques or The Haunting, but in the early parts, The Innkeepers plays like a low-key, quirky character study of two listless young people (a la Tiny Furniture or Ghost World or a Swanberg pic), with some laughs and the occasional jump-scares. In a slasher film, Luke would be the prank-happy annoying nerd who gets killed off quickly, but this is a film about three people and the body-count is actually very low.

If the idea of Tiny Furniture (Lena Dunham makes a brief cameo as an over-sharing barista) and The Haunting swapping DNA sounds to you like the worst thing ever, you aren't being fair to the film. The amount of time we spend getting to know the characters means that when they are threatened by the supernatural, we're genuinely concerned. And by then, we also know the tics and quirks that will cause them to react a certain way.

West and his cast deserve a lot of credit for the careful and credible way they build the relationship between Claire and Luke. It's clear that they've mainly become friends because they spend so much time with just each other for company. And while Claire is definitely the most sympathetic of the two, Luke rings very true. If you've ever worked a minimum-wage job, you've probably known a burn-out like Luke, not really as great as he thinks he is, but with one or two characteristics that, to a callow youth, make him seem cool. For Claire, it's Luke's ghost-hunting site. For me, it was that a co-worker's rock band.

But Claire is the protagonist , and she's a refreshingly complex female character. She's a little jumpy and nervous, but she also shows the most courage of any of the characters we encounter. Even though the thought of trash juice dripping on her as she throws garbage in the dumpster grosses her out, she's willing to risk life and limb to save the soul of a restless ghost. And Sara Paxton plays it all with a lack of self-consciousness that's very lived-in.

And the other nice thing about the slow build is that, by the time the spooky stuff starts, we know the inn very well. It's almost as much a character as Claire and Luke, and, despite being a real, functioning inn, is definitely a triumph of production design. It's picturesque and creepy, but never feels like a soundstage creation.

The other element I have to give West kudos for is the balance he strikes between what we know and what is left (often rather horrifyingly) unsaid. [Possible Spoilers] Our characters assume the ghost haunting the Inn is Madeleine O'Malley, but a lot of the other evidence and the words of McGillis' character suggests there are at least three ghosts haunting the inn, and it's never proven that O'Malley is one of the three. (There is an angry ghost bride, but I would suggest the events that unfold in the Honeymoon suite suggest there's an more than one possibility for that ghost). And yet, there's an internal coherence to the way the hauntings happen and the way they interact with the cast that suggests a logic and a backstory to what's happening, only our protagonists misunderstand it.

Much like the original The Haunting or the early parts of Hell House, what's so creepy and tragic about the events that unfold is that we don't even know why the ghosts selected the victim they did, or for what purpose.