Just as I was ready to write off watching any low budget horror fare in the near future (thanks to seeing the dreadful 7 Below), along comes director/writer/editor Ti West with The Innkeepers. This delightful little flick isn’t revolutionary, but it’s charming, well crafted, and occasionally chilling. It lacks a sustained sense of dread often essential to a great horror film, but I allowed the movie to weave its spell over me, and I ended up liking it quite a bit.
For those of you lucky enough to remember, in the ‘90s Nickelodeon aired a horror series on Saturday nights called Are You Afraid of the Dark. The show paralleled HBO’s Tales from the Crypt, but aimed for prepubescents and teens. It therefore wasn’t violent or gruesome, but some episodes were chilling. Most of the stories weren’t really about ghosts or monsters but about the awkwardness and confusion of being a kid. The series tended to depict adults as aloof and clueless, and the children and teens were often left to fend off supernatural terrors on their own.
The Inkeepers reminds me of an extremely polished extended episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark. Similarly, the film isn’t as brutal and cynical as many contemporary horror films, and it isn’t a satirical deconstruction of the genre like Tucker and Dale vs. Evil or Cabin in the Woods.
Only The Innkeepers doesn’t portray the childhood experience. It captures the discontent and confusion of the emerging Boomerang Generation—young people who are too old to be considered adolescents and too inexperienced and underpaid to be considered responsible adults. Ti West seems to regard the ghost story as incidental.
The film follows two clerks as they slog through their last weekend in an antiquated hotel shortly before its permanent closing. They’re both stuck working a menial job better suited for teenagers, but are they going to do? They’re overeducated and underskilled, and they need the work. A rumor persists that the spirit of a woman who committed suicide haunts the hotel. The two clerks being underpaid and under-stimulated naturally decide to commit their nighttime hours toward investigating the rumor. They get more than they bargain for. Naturally.
West lavishes a lot of attention upon his characters. He cast two excellent unknown actors in the lead roles. The adorable Sara Paxton takes the reigns here, playing the main protagonist with likability and pluck. Pat Healey infuses his curmudgeonly male clerk with a dry sarcasm that keeps the performance funny and the character from being an unrepentant jerk. According to IMDB.com, Healy is 40 years old, but he easily passes for someone in his late 20s or early 30s here. Both share a natural chemistry, and their scenes together are light and enjoyable.
The two hapless clerks deliver clever and occasionally sharp dialogue, and the screenplay invests the two with some amusing quirks. As a result, I found myself appreciating the characters and not caring as much about the lack of sustained scares. When the scares do begin to arrive, however, they are effective.
West appears to understand how a horror scene hangs together and how to move a camera around. Even a simple conversation between two people remains at least visually interesting in his hands. Here, West does an excellent job of building up dread in the scenes that require it. He understands that the best part about horror films is the waiting. The monster rarely lives up to expectations—particularly when the production budget is low.
When things eventually begin to unravel for our minimum wage heroes, he ratchets up the tension by maintaining static shots for an inordinately long amount of time and emphasizing the sound effects which are suitably discomforting. The horrors plaguing the hotel are satisfactorily unsettling and grotesque, but the dread that surrounds their impending arrival is more effective than the solid make up effects. He also throws in enough gore to push the film into “R” territory and sidesteps a limp-wristed PG-13 rating.
However, this isn’t a movie for gore hounds. West has modeled it on older less exploitative movies. Movies that we don’t tend to see these days. As a result, The Innkeepers should feel like a breath of fresh air to longtime horror buffs willing to accept a little less brutality. At the very least, those who remember Are You Afraid of the Dark fondly should enjoy it.